Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Lord Our Righteousness

Continuing the Christmas theme, here's a talk I just gave at our church prayer meeting. It's based on Jeremiah 23v1-8. The audio will hopefully appear here in due course.

"The LORD Our Righteousness"

I was told to do “something adventy” – I hope this counts. It mentions shepherds and a king – in fact, there are three kings, so I think we’ll be OK...

I finally bought my advent calendar on Tuesday. I know it’s a bit late, but it’s magnetic and reusable so I can get it out again next year. And I got it for half-price because no-one buys advent calendars on 15th December! It’s always really cute how the students I work with love their advent calendars – usually their Mums send them through the post, as if they suddenly lose the ability to work out what day it is, even though they’ve managed for the past 3 months. But why? What’s the big deal?

It’s all about anticipation, isn’t it? We’re counting down to the big day, getting more and more excited as we get nearer. It’s a bit weird, because in one way we’re pretending to wait for something which has already happened. But as we do that we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of generations of God’s people who had to wait. People like Jeremiah.

Only Jeremiah was waiting a bit longer – he was around 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Of course people had been waiting even longer than that, ever since the fall God’s people have been waiting for the one God would send to sort it all out. But in this passage, Jeremiah is pointing forward to events 600 years later (or there abouts). That’s about 220,000 advent calendar windows, if anyone’s interested…

The situation is pretty grim at this point, and things are looking bleak. Jeremiah is preaching to the kingdom of Judah. The previous chapters describe a succession of awful kings who’ve led the people away from God and into idolatry and sin. The kingdom of Israel to the north has already been wiped off the map by the Assyrians. And it’s just a few years before Jerusalem is levelled, the temple is destroyed, and most of God’s people end up living in foreign countries. Some of them have already been carried off into exile, and now the enemy are closing in on Jerusalem waiting to finish the job.

At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, he brings messages of warning from God. Turn back to God, or take the consequences. But now those warnings have given way to declarations of the inevitable destruction and exile that awaits Jerusalem. The situation is grim, and things look bleak.

But in the middle of the bleakness, there are glimmers of hope like this one here. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again in Scripture, isn’t it? Against the dark background of human rebellion and righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shine through. And that’s exactly what happens in Jeremiah 23 - there’s certain judgement, but there’s grace too, grace which is equally certain…

Let’s look quickly at the shepherds, then we’ll look at the King…

The Shepherds (v1-4)
What does a shepherd do? There aren’t many of them in Reading, but it’s the responsibility of a shepherd to look after the sheep in his care. So it’s a great image to represent those God has put in charge of his people – kings, but also all of the leaders and officials under him, who have been delegated authority and responsibility from God. Only these shepherds are rubbish. They’re “destroying and scattering” the sheep they’re supposed to be looking after. They’re doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It’s their sinful behaviour and their disregard for God which is bringing disaster on God’s people. It’s their fault that they’re about to be exiled, “scattered and driven away” (v2). And so God is going to do two things to sort it out:

First he’s going to punish – he’s going to punish these rulers for neglecting the care of God’s people, and for the evil they’ve done instead. He doesn’t elaborate on the punishment waiting for them, but given the woe’s God has dished out on the evil kings before this, it’s not going to be nice.

Then he’s going to provide. God himself is going to step in. In sharp contrast to the bad shepherds, God is going to gather his people. The exile isn’t going to last forever. God brought the exile on them (in v3 he says, “I have driven them”), and God himself is going to bring it to an end. He’ll rescue them himself. But can you see that he’ll do way more than that? They’ll be back in their pasture, where they’re supposed to be. They’ll be fruitful and increase in number. God will place good shepherds over them and they’ll be safe, secure and whole (v4).

That’s quite a promise, given the situation they’re in, and the exile they’re facing. But through the other side, God is promising a future they can probably barely even imagine at the moment. Peace and security and fruitfulness. Even though God’s judgement is certain, so is his grace and mercy and faithfulness.

The King (v5-6)

Well, if that promise was astonishing, what about this?
"The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David [a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness. (v5-6_

Every time we read about a King in the Bible, it should make us long for a better king. Even king David, the greatest King the Jews had ever seen, was a sinful failure. But here, in Jeremiah, it’s almost too much. King after king has been terrible. And even Josiah, who not long before this tried to bring his people back to God, even he failed to make any lasting impact. This is a people in desperate need of a better king.

God does better than that. He promises them the King, a King of Kings. Look at what he says about this King…

He’ll “raise up to David a righteous Branch.” This King is going to be from David’s line. God’s promise to David, that one of his sons will always be on the throne, will come true. On King David’s dying, decaying family tree, there’s one branch where there are still signs of life. And one day it will blossom into the greatest King God’s people have ever seen.

This King will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. God’s people haven’t seen a King like that for a while. Where all of their other kings have failed, this King won’t. And when he comes, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. He’ll be their rescuer and their protector – it’s this king who will bring about the happy, peaceful life in verses 3 and 4.

But the real shock is in verse 6, where we find out his name. “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” This King will be God! And he will be their righteousness. God himself will be their righteousness. He will make his people righteous when he comes to be their King.

You’ve probably worked out who this King is now. But put yourself in their place. They had to wait 600 years to find out…

Keep a finger in Jeremiah 23, but flick to Luke 2v8-14.

Good news of great joy! In the town of David - where all of David’s descendents are staying at the moment, remember. A baby has been born on a branch of David’s family tree. And he will be a saviour. He is Christ, the Lord. He’s God’s chosen, long-promised King!

When God brought his people out of exile in Babylon, it was the very start of these promises coming true. But he’d barely even started. When God became one of us in the person of the Lord Jesus, he really showed what he meant. And it was bigger and better than anything Jeremiah and his fellow Jews could have imagined! King Jesus makes it possible for us to be forgiven, and for us to be reconciled to God. He brings an end to our exile from the presence of God, because HE has become “our righteousness” (see 1 Cor 1v30).

And how do we respond to a King like this? Surely the only right response is worship? Loving, joyful worship. There’s nothing else we can do. He’s done everything to restore His people, we’ve done nothing. In that first Christmas, just like in Jeremiah’s day, against the backdrop of righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shines bright and clear. Only this time it’s not the promise – it’s the delivery. (Literally).

Turn back to Jeremiah 23 and just look at the last couple of verses, v7-8. When God delivers his people from exile, He says, it will redefine his relationship with his people. Until this point, when God’s people wanted to remember the faithfulness of their God, they looked back to the exodus from Egypt. “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt.” They knew they believed in a real, living God, because they could look back on a real event in their history, the exodus from Egypt, which confirmed God’s power and his faithfulness. But, when he rescues them from exile in Babylon, all that will change. Instead they’ll say, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” This will be the new benchmark of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy to his people.

I’ve never heard anyone say that. And why would we? “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It’s great that we can look back at God’s faithfulness to his people through the centuries – their history is ours too. But in Jesus, the LORD our righteousness, we have the ultimate demonstration of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy. God’s promises through Jeremiah started to come true when His people returned from exile, but that was nothing compared to the way these promises are coming true in Jesus.

I said “coming true” on purpose, because we’re still waiting for God to finish fulfilling these promises, aren’t we? Can we look around at the world and really think that this has all happened? There’s more to come.

Through Jesus, through his death on the cross, our sin is paid for and our freedom is bought. But we’re waiting for the day when he’ll come back, when everything will be made new and the exile really will be over. When that day comes, we won’t say “as surely as the Lord lives” to remind us that God is real and good. It’ll be ridiculous. We won’t need to remind each other at all because he’ll be right there in front of us for the rest of eternity! …But, for now, we’re waiting. Pointing each other and pointing other people to Jesus, the Lord our righteousness, until he comes back.

I’m sure we’ll be praying for this in a minute anyway, but let’s be praying that this Christmas people will meet “the Lord, their Righteousness.” Their ONLY righteousness, and their only hope – they aren’t going to find it anywhere else. But let’s remember what we’re inviting them into. We’re inviting them to wait for our King to come back and reign wisely and justly and rightly forever! That’s brilliant, isn’t it? It’s good news of great joy! How can we not share that?!

And when advent is over and Christmas comes, what will you do? Will you stop waiting until 1st December next year? Or will you live praising God for his faithfulness and grace and mercy in sending the Lord Jesus? And will you live as though the future is true, and Jesus will come back, finishing what he started?

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Promised Rescuer Arrives - Isaiah 9v1-7

Although, in every practical way, I'm trying to ignore the approach of Christmas, it has pretty much arrived in studentland. So here's a talk I gave at Surrey CU last night on Isaiah 9...

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

Every year, at about 7pm on Christmas Day, my Dad always says, “Well, that’s that for another year.” As kids we always used to get really upset because we wanted Christmas to go on forever. These days I race my Dad to see if I can say it before him. But is that how we should think about Christmas? Is it just for December, or should the truth we celebrate at Christmas last a bit longer than that?

I think it should. Jesus didn’t stay a baby forever – he did grow up. But the message of Christmas – the incarnation, God being made man and born as a human baby – is absolutely vital to who Jesus is and to what Christians believe about him.

We're going to see that as we look at the passage we just read. It was written by a guy called Isaiah, about 2700 years ago (700 years before the New Testament starts). Isaiah was a prophet, a messenger from God, and he's speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah. Isaiah has some pretty scary warnings for Ahaz. But in amongst them is this passage we're looking at.

The first thing to see in this passage is the Promise of Rescue (v2-5).

Look at the last verse of chapter 8. “Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (8v22). It's the tail end of what God has to say about the consequences of turning away from him.

At this point, Judah is under attack from Israel and Syria, who themselves have Assyria breathing down their neck. The kings of Israel and Syria want to force Judah to side with them against Assyria by putting their own king on Ahaz's throne.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Ahaz makes things worse in the way he responds to the threat. The smart response would have been to turn to God and trust him. The whole of their history has shown that things go well when they honour God, and badly when they don't. But, instead, Ahaz decides to take matters into his own hands. In chapters 7 and 8 of Isaiah, we read what the consequences are, for Israel and Syria, and for Judah.

So things are looking pretty grim for Judah. It’s a desperate situation made worse by an arrogant king. What they need is something to give them hope. What they need is to be rescued.

Chapter 9 begins on a note of hope. Against the dark background of chapter 8, a light comes on. “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (v1) – the darkness isn't permanent. Imagine what a ray of hope that must have been for anyone hearing or reading this. Verse 2 carries on the theme of darkness and light.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (v2)
(Don't be confused – remember he's talking about the future. Isaiah has no difficulty talking about these future things as if they have happened – if God has promised them, it's the same thing.)

Isaiah explains to us the effects of the rescue before he tells us how it will happen. God promises:
JOY: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder” (v3).
The picture of joy is a powerful one. Imagine you've been slogging away all year, and then you're finally able to bring in the food you've worked so hard for. Or you've been fighting a war and you're finally able to divide the plunder that's been won in battle. That's the kind of joy he's talking about.

The reason for their joy is even more astonishing than the fact that they are joyful. They have FREEDOM (v4) and PEACE (v5). In the middle of all the difficulty and strife they're facing, and after God has warned them of invasions and attacks to come, freedom and peace were too much to even hope for. But that's exactly what is promised. The instruments of oppression – the yoke, the bar, the rod – will all be destroyed. They'll be free. And soldiers will be able to burn their uniforms. They won't need them any more - they'll be more use as fuel for the fire.

The darkness won't go on forever. God has a rescue plan sorted out. Darkness will turn to light. Their fear will turn to joy. Their oppression will turn to freedom. War will turn to peace.

But how?

God doesn't just promise a rescue here – he also gives them the Promise of a Rescuer to bring it about.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (v6-7)

I don't know about you, but that passage always reminds me of one of the classic pieces of Christmas music.

[Play clip of “When a Child is Born”]

That was, “When a Child is Born” by Johnny Mathis (sorry if you were expecting Handel’s Messiah). I wouldn't normally encourage you to learn your theology from Christmas pop songs, but this one has quite a lot going for it (more than some Christmas carols – Good King Who?!). Especially the bit he repeats over and over, “this comes to pass when a child is born.” That's exactly what Isaiah goes on to say. These incredible things, this incredible rescue. This comes to pass when a child is born.

This isn't the first time Isaiah's brought this up. Back in chapter 7 he mentioned a child called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us, and he would be a sign for everyone of God at work. But here he puts flesh on the bones and explains just who this child will be.

One thing we learn is that He'll be royalty. Do you see the names he's given in verse 6. One of them is Prince of Peace. “The Government will be on his shoulders” (v6). “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom” (v7). Of the Increase of his government... there will be no end.”

But he will also be God.
Look again at the names the boy is given in verse 6. We've looked at Prince of Peace. But He's also called Mighty God. Some people try to play that down - “actually, it only means great hero.” But that's not the most obvious way of reading it. In chapter 10 of the same book, Isaiah uses the same phrase, Mighty God, to talk about God. Isaiah is saying quite simply that this boy will be God. The other names back it up - He's called Wonderful Counsellor (another phrase which Isaiah uses to talk about God).

And He's called Everlasting Father. That's a strange thing to say about a boy who hasn't even been born yet, isn't it? But it's a striking picture. This boy will be someone who will care for the people. But they won't have to grow up and learn to manage without him. He will be an Everlasting Father – he will always be there.

So Isaiah explains that the boy will be Royalty, and the he will be God. And he will be the one to bring joy and peace and freedom. Just look at what his rule will be like.

At this point, it seems as if the king, and the kingdom, is finished. Isaiah has been warning of an invasion, and he's facing attacks from all sides. It seems like too much to hope for. But the line of kings will continue, and when this child is born, he'll be king forever. And he'll be a good king, a great king, better than any they've ever had before. He'll establish the kingdom and up hold it “with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (v7). “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

So that's Isaiah's promise. Things look dismal. But there is hope. God's people will be rescued. They'll rejoice in their peace and freedom. And it will all happen when a child is born. A child who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” A child who will be King, and who will be God, and who will bring the rescue that God has promised, ushering in a new era.

It all sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn't it. Who is this child, and what on earth does it have to do with us, 2000 years later and 6000 miles away?

Well, that brings me to my third point... The Rescuer Arrives

Turn with me to Luke chapter 2, verses 10-14 (you might want to keep a finger in Isaiah 9 too).

“But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah (or Christ), the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.'” (Luke 2v10-14)

Recognise anything familiar? The angel brings good news of great joy. Great joy because a baby has been born in the town of King David. Not just any baby, but a Saviour! The news of the birth prompts a choir of angels to sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

This is God's promise, through Isaiah, being fulfilled. Look in verse 11 - the angel calls him the Messiah, the Lord. He was the one the Jewish people were waiting for. They waited 700 years for the Christ. And here, with the birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, the Christ arrives.

At first glance, it looks like there must have been some kind of mistake. The baby is lying in a feeding trough, and the birth is announced to shepherds, who dangled from the lowest rung of society. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?!
And you probably know what happens later. This boy grew up, and ended up living like a tramp. Then he allowed himself to be captured, beaten, abused and executed. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?

The reason is that Jesus isn't the king they were expecting, but he IS the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise. He IS the rescuer promised by God. He DOES bring the rescue God promised. But the implications are infinitely wider, the scale is massively bigger than it first appears...

The promise was for more than just Ahaz and his people. It was for more than even the Jewish race. Look again at verse 10 of Luke chapter 2. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The promise is thrown open wide to anyone who will trust in Christ.

Through Isaiah, God promised peace. Christ brings peace, but not the kind of peace they were expecting. Ahaz and his people were guilty of rejecting God, but so are we. We've all turned our backs on him and ignored him. And that makes us his enemies. It's a strong way of putting it, but those are the terms the Bible uses.

We live in a world which is ravaged by war and hostility, and we can look around and think that what the kind of peace the world most needs is an end to war. But the kind of peace the world really needs is peace with God. All the war and unrest in the world is nothing compared to being at war with the one who made and sustains the universe.

Christ came into the world as our rescuer to make that peace possible. He died to pay for our rejection of God, and to put things right. Christ died, and now we can be forgiven by God. Instead of hostility, there can be peace between us. Once our relationship with God is sorted out, we're in the right position to start sorting our differences. Otherwise it's as much use as giving paracetamol to someone who needs a heart bypass – it might look hopeful, but ultimately it is useless.

Through Isaiah, God also promised freedom. Christ brings freedom, but, again, a different kind of freedom. Christ offers freedom from sin and death.

Ahaz would have been interested in freedom from his enemies. Although Judah held out for a few more years, it was eventually conquered and was ruled over by one empire after another. So the kind of freedom they were looking for was no doubt very real. And, again, as we look around our world we see many who desperately need freedom, whether it is from actual captivity, or from oppression or poverty.

But the Bible says we're all held captive by something far worse than politics or poverty. Our attitude towards God has left us in a mess. Now our natural state is to be turned away from God, and the consequence is death. There's nothing we can do about it. And it now seems so natural that we think death is the inevitable end to life - but it isn't supposed to be.

When Christ died, he dealt with the problem once and for all. But he dealt with the effects too. He dealt with the evil that grips the world, and it's ultimate conclusion, death. When Christ died, he didn't stay dead. Three days later he came back to life, and he's still alive. Now there is hope. A light has come on in the darkness. Christ brings the ultimate kind of freedom. And how can any of us who know that freedom possibly stand by and allow others to endure oppression and captivity. For Christians, our complete freedom should motivate us to fight for freedom for others.

And, of course, through Isaiah God promised joy. You've probably worked out what I'm going to say - Christ brings joy. But it is so much better than the joy of reaping a harvest or winning a battle. It's more than knowing that there is a chance for peace and that we're freed from sin and death. Through what Christ has done, we can experience the mind-boggling, heart-exploding joy of knowing God our creator! We can know him as we should – as our creator, as our Father. And it's so much better than any joy we might think we've had, because it will never fail or fade. It will last for all eternity!

This peace, this freedom, this joy all begin now if you trust Jesus with your life. But there is more to come. If we trust Christ, then we can look forward to a future where all of these these are complete. A future where every last trace of evil and hate and suffering are removed, and where will experience the joy of spending eternity with God. And then we'll really see what God was promising all those centuries ago.

2700 years ago, God made a promise to his people, through Isaiah and King Ahaz. He reminded them of his rescue plan. He told them they would know joy, and freedom and peace.

It turned out the promise was bigger and better than they probably could have imagined. And the same promise is open to each of us.

How? “This comes to pass when a child is born.” Tell your friends about this. They desperately need to know about it. And in a couple of weeks, don’t pack Christmas away with the Christmas tree and the tinsel. This is good news of great joy, for all the people!