Sermon: Build Up The Highway!
Sermon: "Build Up The Highway!"
5th in the "Set Your Watch" series.
Delivered February 1, 2009 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Sermon Text: Isaiah 62:1-12
Well, I've got a question. What are your plans for your future? It's not an insignificant question nowadays with the economy the way it is. If you're in school right now, maybe your goal is to someday get out of school so you can do something interesting and get paid for it. And at other times in history that might have been a reasonable expectation. Who knows now?
Maybe your goal has to do with getting married. You just long for the day that, you know, somebody will come and greet you when you come home that isn't wearing a flea collar. You know, it's just one of those goals you have in life.
Maybe you're thinking about retirement and you know, you have this image of cruise ships and grandchildren and all of that stuff. And if you have a little bit less energy like me, maybe it's just a rocking chair and grandchildren. Who's got the energy to do any more?
I'll be a little more serious, maybe your goal is simply to get into a place in life where there's more healing and peace in your life than you have right now. It doesn't matter what the goal is, if there is a goal that's really significant in our lives, then we try to live towards that goal. We try to live with that in mind and do things now that help us prepare for that. So if it's a good retirement we try to save. We try to do exercise to remain healthy. If it's to get a good job then we study and take the right courses in school.
So if we're serious about our picture of the future, we prepare. If we're not serious and we don't prepare, then that has consequences. Now as Christians we always talk about the fact that God has plans for us. And those plans are for us personally. But those plans that he has for us personally, fold into his plan for the whole world because God has a plan for all of creation. And we know that. And it's expressed all kinds of different ways in Scripture.
Sometimes God's plan for the future comes out as a command, so when he tells the church, the early church, to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them, that's a direct command saying, "Wait. Then God will empower you and you'll become my witnesses." In the end of the gospel of Matthew there's another command of Jesus, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I've commanded you." That is a clear command that talks about God's intended future.
Now sometimes his words about the future are a general warning and a general encouragement, for example, when Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world." That's a picture of the future. It's a picture of the world we live in, and he's telling us how to approach it.
Now sometimes this picture of the future is really a picture. It's an image of something, and that image has literal parts and it has figurative parts. And we have to study it and we have to look at it and figure out what applies to the present, what does it mean, what applies to the future, what does that mean?
In the book of Revelation there's a picture where there are people from every tribe and nation and language in white robes assembled to worship God. This is a picture of the heart of God. It's a picture of our mission now to go out into all nations. It's a picture of the fruit of that mission in the future when there are people from every tribe and nation to worship God. It tells us about a future, gives us a picture of a future, but it tells us about the present and tells us how to live now.
The passage we're going to read in the book of Isaiah, chapter 62, is another one of those pictures. It describes a future that's much bigger than just the picture of Israel coming out of exile in Babylon. It uses that reality to give us insight into God's big picture which includes us right now. The words that are there include us, and give us insight into how we're supposed to live right now.
So let's go into Isaiah, chapter 62, verses 10-12.
"Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations. The Lord has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.' They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted."
Let's pray: God, help us to understand your Word and by your Holy Spirit show us how to respond, for we ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.
The picture we get here is a picture of readiness, a picture of preparation. Look at the kinds of words we've got here... pass through, prepare the way, build up, remove the stones. It's a very active picture. It's a picture of removing every obstacle that is standing in the way of our relationship to God. A picture of removing every obstacle that stands in the way of other people coming into what God is doing. And to do this, Israel draws our eyes to the day when their exile is over.
And as we see the countryside we see people starting to leave all of these cities where they've been held captive, and they approach Jerusalem. And as they get close they are told, "Pass through. Pass through the gates." It's repeated for emphasis. These people who have come out of their captivity were told to step into their future, step into their liberty, step into the kingdom that God is building. They're supposed to own it and experience it themselves.
But look at the very next words of what it says to them, "Pass through. Pass through the gates. Prepare the way for the people." When they come into the city, when they claim the inheritance of God once again giving liberty to his people, they're not supposed to just enjoy that liberty and rest in it, maybe do a little bit of celebration. They're supposed to prepare for a bigger group that's following them.
The picture here is that these forerunners come into the city, they own what God has done, but then they're called to prepare and all the next few verses focus in on the preparation that they're supposed to do. "Build up. Build up the highway." Again the emphasis. Whenever royalty would come close to a city it was the responsibility of the city to clear out the roads leading to it, to smooth them out, to remove the stones.
And so here's this picture that the people who go in are to prepare and one of the ways they're preparing is to smooth things out, and to find where those stones are, and to remove them to make everything smooth, everything clear for the king or the royalty to come, along with the entire procession that he's leading.
The final command is, "Raise a banner for the nations." Now banners were used for Israel to show where you're supposed to assemble. So for example, if they were having a holy assemble at the tabernacle or at the temple they would raise banners for each tribe and each clan there, and so you would know where you were supposed to go to be together with your family, with your tribe. This was also used in warfare. The banner would show where your tribe would rally and gather in the midst of the confusion of battle.
What's really unusual here - Isaiah talking to Israel going into exile - is that the banner they raise is for the nations. The banner they raise is for the nations to assemble and join the procession. The Scripture is full of indications that even then, in the Old Testament, God's heart was for all the nations. Take a look at Psalm 47 sometime on your own. It's a picture of the coronation of Jesus Christ, and right in there it says, "The nations assemble as the children of Abraham, the fulfillment of the promise."
God promised to Abraham: "Through you all the nations will be blessed." Here's this picture that the nations come, not as enemies, not as strangers, but as children of Abraham. That's who we are. We are those nations. And so in this picture a banner is raised up for the nations to come, and they come into this procession heading towards God's city as God's own.
The picture Isaiah gives of people leaving their captivity, moving towards God's city, amid the praises of countless voices, with the king leading a procession, Jew and non-Jew, in using this picture Isaiah cries out across the years that the people of God are to enter into the liberty of what God is doing in building his kingdom. And then they are to remove every possible obstacle that stands in the way of anyone else coming in.
Do we take this picture seriously? This is a picture of today because we live in the already and the not yet. This passage, these verses, are already being lived out among us. God is building his kingdom. God is drawing people under the lordship of Jesus Christ. A banner has been raised for the nations. It's not complete. It's not complete until Jesus comes again, but it has begun now. We are living in this.
So do we take this seriously when it comes to the point that it's calling us to prepare the way for the people? Are we ready to remove every stone and make the way smooth? This is especially important for those of us who claim and have affirmed for years that we belong to Christ. Do we live every day leaning into this future that God has said is coming?
A few weeks ago, Paul Borden visited us. Before he came he took a look at all kinds of paperwork and statistics about the life of this church. He took a look at countless spreadsheets, and believe me, Jim McClure can produce some spreadsheets, and we sent him the whole package. He had something like that that he looked through three times and marked. We wanted to give him every possible way at looking at the life of this congregation.
Then he talked to the session, talked to the staff. In groups he interviewed dozens of you. And when he looked at us as a congregation, he had many good things to say, and he had some stronger words as well. And I'm going to share with you some of those, and if you want to look at this in more detail it's in today's News and Views. This paragraph is from his report:
"This congregation is committed to fulfilling the Great Commission through its support of missionaries and mission ministries; however, fulfilling the Great Commission is not a behavior that is practiced with any consistency in the life of the congregation."
In other words, we're generous with money to support missionaries who are doing outreach, we commit our money and some of the people in our congregation get involved with other organizations that are connecting with people and sharing Christ. But when it comes down to the typical life of the congregation together, or in our individual lives at home, it's not a consistent part of our lives.
There are few people who are doing this very well and very regularly. And I want to commend you and thank you. But so many of us have let some obstacles get in the way of doing that in our lifestyle. Moving people towards Christ, including leading them to Christ, is something we say all the time. And one of the things that this has reminded us as session and staff and me as pastor is how important it is that we once again make primary what's primary. And so there are things that we'll be changing in our life together, things that we can change to move more towards that goal. And so I want to ask for your prayers for that, that we'll have wisdom and that we'll have courage as we make those changes.
But the problem is deeper than just what we do when we're together. The problem involves our individual lives as well. It's the way we live every day. We've let obstacles, we've got stones that are still in the road. So what are some of those obstacles? What are some of the stones that are in the road that are keeping other people from being able to enter?
I think one of the big ones is over-busyness. We've said it before. We'll say it again. But this is one of the realities in our lives. We have lives that hurtle past the people that God is calling us to love. We have filled our lives with so many activities that we can't give the attention to the people that God has called us to connect with. It might be in our family. It might be in our workplace, might be in our neighborhood, and might be here in the church. It's a typical part of our lives.
Now you don't have to explain it to me. You don't... we all have our excuses. I have my excuses as well. The question that we all have to answer personally is, "Is that excuse good enough for God?" Are our reasons for being so busy so good that we'll be able to give that excuse to God? That's the question we all are responsible for. One of the stones in our way is our over-busy life.
Another stone is our fear. Reason I use "our" here is not just as a literary device, it's because it includes me. I'm over busy. I share this fear. We get paranoid about sharing our faith sometimes. You know, we think to ourselves, "Not a good time. Not a good time to share." Maybe think, "Other people have the gift of evangelism. That lets me off the hook." "Don't want to seem like a fanatic." "I'm shy. I'm an 'I' on the Myers-Briggs. God give this to the 'E's'. E stands for evangelism." I use all of those. The one I can't use is, "I don't know the Bible well enough." There's only so far I can play games even with myself, you know.
What are our excuses? Now believe me, I'm not talking about manipulating every conversation to be about Jesus. It's not what we're talking about. I'm not talking about somebody comes into your house and sees the new bathroom you put in, "Oh, that's beautiful tile in there." And you say, "Yes, that is... you know tile is made out of clay. And that reminds me of a Bible passage that talks about God being the potter and us being the clay. You know, do you know that God loves you and wants to mold you into the image of Jesus and fire you up for his mission?" I'm not talking about that.
What we're talking about is honesty. Is it real or not? Is it eternal or not? Is it the most important thing that's ever happened to us that has shaped our destiny, or not? It's a matter of love. God loves those broken people where we live, where we work, and where we play. He loves us - broken people. And are we going to hold back from them the very thing that God who has created us has said is the most fundamental thing necessary to move us towards healing?
It's a matter of attention. Are we going to focus our attention on the things that God has said are important, or are we going to let the world focus us on everything else? What are the stones? Prepare the way for the people. Build up the highway. Remove the stones.
There are other stones too. Stones that are things that people call sin, the Bible calls sin. We haven't forgiven people and this becomes a stone, an obstacle in the way when we're called to share about the God of forgiveness. We get angry and we abuse people, and this becomes a stone in the way when we try to share about the God who has dealt with his anger in Jesus Christ. We're immoral. We're tempted to the same lying and cheating and sexual disobedience as our neighbors. And maybe we give into it almost as much as they do. And so this becomes a stone in the way when we try to talk about freedom from sin.
Even though God's reign is called a rule of justice, we tolerate injustice, particularly when it favors us... another stone in the way, something else that people trip over when they try to look at what God's doing in the world. Do we believe that God has a plan for all creation? Do we believe that it includes us, the church? Do we believe it includes us as God's people? Then we have to be serious about the things that matter to God. Prepare the way for the people. Remove the stones.
The first stone we need to remove is indifference, the calluses that have grown up on us. We cannot remain indifferent to the command of God. We cannot remain indifferent to the needs of our neighbor, including their spiritual needs. We cannot remain indifferent to the eternal consequences of ignoring what the core of life is about. What we know the core of life is about is being reconciled to God and calling other people into that family of reconciliation.
Now what do we do with news like that? In just a moment I'm going to call us to a time of corporate confession. The way we're going to do it is like this. I'm going to ask you to stand in a moment and for you to gather in groups of four to six people. And then we're going to have a time of silent prayer, a time when we can bring what's personal in our lives before God. And then I will give us some direction in prayer, and then I invite you to speak up and lead your smaller group in prayer. Simultaneously we'll be praying in groups around the sanctuary.
Now if you do not want to pray out loud that's okay. It's okay if the circle is silent the whole time. It won't be that long. But if you do have the desire to lead your group in prayer, please do. This time is for that... to kind of get real about where we really stand on these issues about what's on the heart of God. But I want to go to this passage one more time before we're finished with it because it ties in with the table that's in front of us here.
Let me read the last few verses again of Isaiah, chapter 62, verses 11 and 12.
"The Lord has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: 'Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.' They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted."
This passage began with God speaking to people that were facing judgment, speaking to people who were going to go into exile, and even as he was executing that judgment on them, he could not hold back the picture of the love and delight he wanted to pour out on his people. The passage ends once again with the heart of God going out. And he points to a future that we're living in right now, a time when he's actually gathering people from the nations into his kingdom. And it says this about them, "The Savior comes!"
And they want to declare that reality to the ends of the earth, see? The Lord has made a proclamation to the ends of the earth. God's eye is always upon all the nations. And then it says, "These people who gather will be called a Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord, Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted." That is what we celebrate here, what was future to Isaiah in part is history for us. We are living in it even as we point to its completion in the future.
At this table, we celebrate the single event in history that makes us a holy people. Jesus has won it. He's done it. That name belongs to us. The second name is the Redeemed of the Lord...those who have been bought back from their slavery. At this table, we celebrate the reality that has made that true for us. We rightly can claim to be the Redeemed of the Lord, bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are sought after.
Remember, Jesus said he came to seek and to save the lost. The name belongs to us. We were lost. We're now found. This is what God did to find us. And then the final is the City No Longer Deserted. In that command that Jesus gave us to go and make disciples of all nations he says, "And lo, I am with you always to the very end of the age." We will no longer be deserted or forsaken. The reality of that is all celebrated here. So I invite you to worship, to praise, to share, to celebrate. God has done it.
© 2009, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145