December 1, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Advent Week One and Two

Week of the first Sunday in Advent


Morning - Psalm 1 & 3, Is. 1:1-9, Mk. 1:1-13
Evening - Psalm 4 & 8, Is 1:10-20, Rev. 3:14

            Isaiah was a wealthy priest who began his book in the year the King Uzziah died, about 742 B.C. He was the King's pastor, and was possibly a member of the royal family.  Well educated and a faithful minister of God, his book is a warning to a people who have turned away from God. The heart of today's readings is found in the words of God, "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me" (1:2).  This verse sets the tone for the entire book of Isaiah, for everything after this verse is either a plea from God to repent and be blessed, or a revelation of the terrible price they will pay for their sins.
            The people found these words shocking.  After all, they were the chosen people, and they were outwardly very religious.  They were very conscientious about observing the ceremonial regulations of feast and fasts and animal sacrifices.  But their hearts were far from God.  Thus, God is full of their burnt offerings and has no delight in the blood of bulls and goats (1:11).  When God says He is "full" of their burnt offerings He does not mean He is satisfied as a person would be after a good meal.  He means He is overfull.  He is like a person who has eaten far too much, and is violently sick because of it.  He is so sick of their insincere worship that the very thought of it makes Him nauseous. 
            God will not endure this forever.  If the people repent He will feed them with the good of the land, but if they refuse they will be devoured with the sword (1:19-20).


Morning - Psalm 7, Is 1:21-28, Mk. 1:14-28
Evening - Psalm 11 & 12, Is. 2:1-5, Rev. 4

            The morning reading from Is. 1:21-28 is summarised in two phrases.  The first is found in verse 24.  The "adversaries" and "enemies" of God are outwardly good, religious people who do all the religious things specified by the Old Testament ceremonial law.  But, somehow they have separated faith from life.  They keep the Sabbath with meticulous detail, but oppress and mistreat their brethren throughout the rest of the week.  The concept of Godliness in every aspect of life, from work to recreation to home and church is foreign to them.  But God demands Godliness in all things.  He demands to be Lord of your home as much as of your church, and Lord of your morals as much as of your worship.  The plan of God for Israel was for people to love God, to worship Him in Biblical worship and faith, and to put that faith into practice in every aspect of life.  So there is no part of life that is separate from "religion."  God is Lord of all of life.  The same is true for the New Testament Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ.
            The second phrase that summarises this passage is in verse 25.  The image of this verse is the refining furnace, which burns away impurities from precious metals.  God is telling the people of Judea He is going to put them through the refining fire. He is going to burn away their dross in the fire of His wrath.  He is going to purify them through suffering, much of which will come through brutal military conquest of their land.
            The evening reading looks beyond the fire to a day when God Himself has healed His people and brought peace to them forever.  In that Day all nations will walk in His ways and there will be no more war.  This is the time of the Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ.  That Day is not here in its full sense, yet it is here in the Church.  It would be good to think and discuss how the Church fulfills this passage (or falls short of it) as part of your Evening Prayer tonight.


Morning - Psalm 9, Is.2:6-22, Mk. 1:29-39
Evening - Psalm 15 &19, Is. 3:1-3, 6-15, Rev.5

            The people in today's readings from Isaiah have a problem.  It is not a problem of poverty or hunger, for there is no end of their treasures (Is. 2:7).  Their problem is that they have forsaken the greatest treasure of all, God.  Forsaking God, they have turned to false gods.  Why would they turn to idols?  Because it is easier to fall for a lie than to stand for the truth.  To put it another way; idols are easier to serve than God.  We can create an idol to be anything we want.  We can dictate to it what kind of god it will be and what it will require of us.  But God refuses to be dictated to.  God always demands that we change to conform to Him.  He never changes to conform to us.  Do people today try to change God to make it easier to serve Him?  On what do you base your answer?


Morning - Psalm 10, Is. 4:2, Mk. 1:40
Evening - Psalm 24 &30, Is. 5:1-7, Rev. 6:1-11

            Isaiah 4:2 and following look past judgment to the redemption and restoration of Judea.  The reforms under King Hezekiah and the restoration of the Jews after the Babylonian Captivity are the first applications of this passage.  But it looks beyond these things to an event that is immeasurably greater than both of them, and of which they are symbols and representations.  That event is the advent of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Christ is the Branch of the Lord, beautiful and glorious.  The salvation of souls and the Kingdom of Christ is the fruit He brings forth by His suffering and resurrection. In Him Jerusalem (the Church) is holy.  In Him the filth (sin) of the daughters of Jerusalem (people who receive Him as Lord and Saviour) is washed away.  Through Him the cloud of smoke and fire (the presence of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit) descend to Mt. Zion (the Church) and her assemblies (meetings for worship).  He is the Tabernacle, the shelter from the heat, storm, and rain (the results of our sins).  Note that a shelter protects us by bearing the storm for us.
            Isaiah 5 returns to the theme of judgment.  The vineyard is Judea.  Called and blessed by God, she has refused to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Thus, she is left to be overgrown by thorns and weeds.  This, too, is applicable to Israel and Christ.


Morning - Psalm 22, Is. 5:8-29, Mk. 2:1-12
Evening - Psalm 6 & 13, Is. 6:1-11, Rev. 7:1-4, 9-17

            The Word of the Lord in Isaiah 6 is a terror to the prophet.  He has been commissioned to proclaim the Word to Judea, but he is told that the people will not understand or receive it.  Instead, his preaching will make their hearts fat, their ears heavy, and their eyes shut, that they may not hear and convert and be healed.  The prophet probably remembers the warnings of God's anger, which he has already been preaching to the people.  Those warnings were coupled with a promise of forgiveness to those who repent.  But now Isaiah is told by God that the majority of people will not repent.  Most will not even understand or receive his message. Instead of hearing it with fear and repentance, their ears and hearts will become calloused to it.  It will fade into the background noise, like music in a mall.
            Perhaps a similar thing has happened to people today.  The Gospel has been the foundation of Western civilisation and culture.  It has formed our values and our world.  We have rarely come close to actually living up to it, but it has always been a force to reckon with, even when we have strayed from it.  After 2,000 years, people are no longer listening to it.  It is there.  Even the most secularised places play Christmas carols at this time of year.  But people are not paying attention.  It has become background noise.  It puts them to sleep, even those who believe it is true.  God help us to hear it. 


Morning - Psalm 28 & 29, Is. 7:1-9, Mk. 2:13-22
Evening - Psalm 27, Is. 7:10-20, Rev. 10

Ahaz was Uzziah's grandson.  He actually attempted some reforms in Judea.  In chapter 7 Israel, which separated from Judah and formed its own country after the death of Solomon, has joined forces with Syria to fight against Judea.  God's message to Ahaz is that He will not allow them to defeat Judea.  He offers to give a sign, which Ahaz refuses.  So God gives the sign, but not just for Ahaz; for all people.  A virgin shall be with Child.

Week of the Second Sunday in Advent


Morning - Psalm 33, Isaiah 8:5-20, Mk. 2:23-3:6
Evening - Psalm 42 & 43, Is 9:8-17, Rev. 11:15

Today we read again of Immanuel (8:8).  This time His name is spoken in great sadness, for the land of Judea, Immanuel's Land, will be occupied and conquered by an army so vast and powerful its lines will "fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel."  Chapter 8 is given first as a promise of security to Ahaz and the people of Judea.  It is the good news of the fall of their enemies.  Rather than conquering Judea, they will be conquered by Assyria (8:7).  This will be a temporary deliverance for Judea, and during their deliverance, they will have a time of partial reformation and faith as Hezekiah attempts to move the people back towards God.  But, the reforms will be incomplete, and many of the people will resist them.  And so, even Judea will be troubled by the Assyrians, and, eventually fall to the empire that conquered Assyria, Babylon.

In tonight's reading, we skip over the great promises of Is. 9:6-7.  We will take them up later, of course.  We move on to 9:8 where the Northern kingdom of Israel is boasting that it will rebuild.  Chapter 8 warned that Israel would be defeated by Assyria.  In chapter 9 this has already happened, yet the people will not turn from their sins to God (9:13).  They boast that if they don't have bricks they will build with stones.  If good, sycomore wood is unavailable they will build with cedar.  Their attitude is very much like that expressed in the poem, "Invictus."  Because of this the wrath of God will be as darkness upon the land, and the people will be as fuel for the fire (9:19).


Morning - Psalm 48, Is. 9:18-10:4, Mk. 3:7-9
Evening - Psalm 46 & 47, Is. 10: 5-21, Rev. 12:1-12

The Lord continues to warn Judea of His approaching wrath. Notice the disintegration of Judean society which causes God's anger to burn against them.  All of Israel was called to be one people.  They were like a family, and were to walk together in love to God and love to one another.  Instead of love they have given hate. They have trampled the rights of the poor; they have bought and sold "justice" with bribes and threats.  They prey on widows and rob orphans of their own people.  Thus, they will become prisoners and casualties.  God has set them aside to become fuel for the fire.  If He punished Samaria, capital of the Northern tribes of Israel, shall He not also punish Jerusalem, capitol of the Southern tribe of Judah?

Tonight's reading turns to the Assyrian conquerors.  True, God will allow them to destroy Israel and Judea, but their deeds are still evil.  They will build an empire by blood and death, and they will enrich themselves with their victims' spoils, but God will not let them go unscathed.  He will bring judgment and wrath upon them as surely as He has done upon His own chosen people (verses 12 and 13).  What does it mean in verse 15, "Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith?"  Who is the ax and who heweth therewith?


Morning - Psalm 50, Is. 11:1-10, Mk. 3:20
Evening - Psalm 49, Is 12, Rev. 13:1-10

Judea is cut down.  Once a great tree, luxuriant and well watered, it is shown here as a dying stump.  Years of war have leveled it.  Future conquests, coupled with internal decay, will wear even the stump away.  But out of the roots of that tree will come a shoot, a branch.  Seemingly tender and weak, it will grow to be mighty and great.  In it all the promises of chapters 11 and 12 come to pass.  Read these verses in light of the Messiah and His Kingdom and you will see their meaning.


Morning - Psalm 62, 63, Is. 13:1-5, 7-22, Mk. 4:1-20
Evening - Psalm 66, Is. 13:6-15

Today's readings take us through the 13th chapter of Isaiah, which foretells the destruction of Babylon in devastating military conquest.  Even her women and children will be mercilessly murdered by the cruel sword of the conquering army.  Babylon was famous for its wealth and luxuriance.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided abundant water, and that meant an abundance of food, waterways for shipping and trade, and the accumulation of wealth.  The Babylonians became a mighty empire, ruling most of the Middle East, including Israel and Judea, both of which fell to her advancing armies.  The Old Testament makes it very clear that God raised up the Babylonians and allowed them to conquer the Jews as punishment for sins.  But He would not let the Babylonians go unpunished.  Their conquest and oppression of others was still wrong, and they would suffer for it terribly.


Morning - Psalm 73, Is. 24:16, Mk.4:21-19
Evening - Psalm 77, Is. 26:11-19, Rev. 15

Isaiah 24 contains the dual themes of wrath and mercy.  The first 15 verses are about God's wrath on the Jews, from which we can easily draw parallels about all humanity.  Truly all have sinned and are by nature children of wrath as much as the Jews of Isaiah's time.  And while God is just if He makes the earth desolate and its people to live in sorrow, yet He delights to have mercy and to give His grace and peace to those who seek Him.  And even in the midst of the fires, that is, the wars and pestilence and destruction that comes upon the earth, there are people who still seek and glorify God (24:15).  Our reading begins at verse 16 and continues to tell of the sorrows of the ungodly.
            The evening reading jumps ahead to Is. 26:11-19, saving chapter 25 for Easter Sunday.  Tonight's passage reminds people what happens when other lords have dominion over them.  Whether those lords are human or idols the result is always evil, and the people have suffered for it greatly.  But here also is a hint of repentance in verse 13; "by thee only will we make mention of thy name."


Morning - Psalm 80, Is. 28:1-13, Mk. 4:30
Evening - Psalm 5, Is. 28:14-22, Rev. 18:1-10

Is. 28 tells rebellious Israel (Ephraim) that its crown of pride and wealth will be taken from it.  Again we remember that Israel joined Syria in a war on Judea.  Syria and Israel wanted to resist the advance of the Assyrian Empire, which threatened to conquer and destroy them.  Alone, they were no match for the Assyrian war machine.  Even together they had little chance of surviving an Assyrian attack.  But Syria, Israel, and Judea united would be a formidable army which the Assyrians might not even attack.  So Syria and Israel joined their armies to force Judea to support them.  You remember that Isaiah told Ahaz, king of Judea, that he need not fear Syria or Israel, for before they would be able to mount a serious offensive against Judea, they would both be conquered by Assyria.  Today's readings are about Israel and God's dealings with her.  The prophet takes much time to show the sins of Israel, that they may know that God is patient and kind, giving countless opportunities for repentance and faith.  But there is a time when the day of opportunity ends, and the day of wrath begins.

First Sunday in Advent sermon

The Night Is Far Spent
Psalm 97, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 21:1-13
First Sunday in Advent
December 1, 2013

Imagine the world before electricity, even before natural gas, kerosene, or coal.  Nights would be much darker than they are now.  The fire place, and maybe a candle, would be the only light most houses would have. There would be no street lights, no vehicle lights, not even a flashlight for pedestrians.  And the sky would be dark.  In our time the night sky is filled with the reflected glow of city lights.  Even rural areas receive large amounts of light reflected from distant towns and cities.   In Powhatan we see the glow from Richmond.  In western Powhatan we can see the glow from the village, shopping center, and housing developments.   But without lights, even the large cities would be dark; deeply, impenetrably, and fearfully dark.
Now imagine that kind of darkness as a spiritual/moral condition of the soul.  That is part of what God meant when He had the Apostle Paul write in Romans 13:12; “the night is far spent.”  We see this idea in many other passages of Scripture.  Ephesians 5:11 says, “have no fellowship with the works of darkness,” and Ephesians 5:17, 18 encourages us to “walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God.”  Then, there is that phrase in Romans 1:21 that is so descriptive of the spiritual condition of people apart from Christ; “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful: but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
This brings me to the first point of today’s sermon, and it is a major point in this passage, and in the entire Bible; there is a night of the soul.  There is a darkness in the moral/spiritual make up of every person that makes us unwilling to see God or the good and moral things of life. It is not that these things are obscured in darkness.  They are clearly visible.  The darkness is in us, in our souls and minds and wills, so that we are unwilling to see them.  In some places the Bible calls this condition, “blindness.”  In other places the Bible calls it being “dead” toward God.  Romans 13:12 calls this condition, “night.”  Though this night enables us to ignore God, it by no means enables us to ignore the results of our darkness.  We see its results everywhere.  We see them in the lives of people making tragic mistakes they will pay for the rest of their lives.  We see them in peoples’ character flaws and moral weaknesses.  We see them in the greed and corruption in government, business, education, and even churches.  We see them in broken churches, broken countries broken communities, broken homes and broken people.
This brings me to the second point of this sermon; “the night is far spent.”  We have been in this darkness for a long time.  It is not like we are in late evening, or even midnight.  We are in the deep, deep part of night.  Look back through history and you will see that the works of darkness have plagued humanity since Adam and Eve turned away from God. Their sin plunged the world into darkness, and we have been in darkness ever since.   At this time of year most people are playing Christmas carols, many of which address our darkness.  You will recognize these words from “It Came Upon the Mid-night Clear:”

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, The world has suffered long;
 Beneath the heav’nly strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong;

O ye beneath life’s crushing load Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and low.

And you know these words from, “O Holy Night:” “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining.”

But if the night is far spent, then morning is near.  That is the third point of the sermon.  That’s why Paul wrote, “it is high time to awake out of sleep.”  The night is passing.  The morning is quickly approaching.  One of the major points of Romans 13:12 is that Christ has come to this earth, and with Him came light.  If we remember that the Biblical image of darkness represents spiritual ignorance and sin, we can easily understand the Biblical language of light.  John wrote, “the Light shineth in the darkness” Jn. 1:5.  “The people who sat in darkness saw a great light.”  And no one who knows Christ can ever forget His words in John 9:5, “I am the light of the world.”
We saw streaks of morning light two thousand years ago when Christ became flesh and was born in Bethlehem.  We saw the light in Him who is the light of the world as He taught us about God.  No one has seen God, Christ said, but the Son, that is Jesus Christ, came into the world to show God to us. He, Himself is the revelation of God, and if we have seen Him we have seen the Father.  In His light we see the absolute goodness of God, for Jesus was completely without sin.  In His light we see the mercy of God, and the love of God, for greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.  In His light we see that those who claim to love God must keep His commandments, not our own version of what we would like His commandments to be.  In His light we see that real faith takes God on God’s terms, rather than demanding God to take us on our terms.  He, who was obedient even unto death on the cross, is the great example of loving and serving God on God’s terms.
The light dawned brighter when Christ our Saviour went to the cross to bear our sins. It grew even brighter with His resurrection and ascension; with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church, and with the completion of Holy Scripture.  But the full dawn is not here yet.  It will come only when Christ Himself returns to us.  Romans 13:12 is the perfect verse for the first Sunday in Advent because it looks back to the First Advent of Christ, and recalls His life and ministry.  It looks back to the Faith, the doctrines He gave to the Apostles, and which He commanded the Apostles to teach to the Church.  It also looks forward to the Second Advent of Christ.  His first Advent was almost in disguise.  Being born in a cattle shed, raised in a carpenter’s shop, and murdered on the cross is not the way most people expected God to come to earth.  But that was His First Advent in weakness.  His Second Advent will be a full revelation of His Divine power and glory.  Every eye will see Him, and every soul will recognize Him.  For some, that will be a day of sorrow, for He will end this age of darkness in which the things of Christ are distained.  He will finally and fully deal with those who love darkness rather than light, and they will be sent to a place, often called the outer darkness, the darkest darkness, to live in the deepest sorrow forever.  For some it will be a day of great joy, an awful joy, but a very real joy such as we can only imagine now.  He will gather His people unto Him and we will meet Him in the air to witness the passing away of this world of darkness and the inauguration of the new earth.  This new earth will be given to His people, and we will live there in perfect joy forever.  The darkness will be gone.  We will have forever put away the deeds of darkness, and we will live in the Light, for He who said, “whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness,” will dwell with us, and He will be our Light forever.  Sickness, war, strife, death, and sin will be banished forever.  And we will see and enjoy Him face to face.
At Christ’s first Advent He was despised and rejected of men.  He came unto His own and His own received Him not.  He came as light into darkness, but men loved darkness rather than light.  Let it not be so with us.  We are called to be children of the light, to walk in the light even as He is in the light.  Therefore, let us cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.  As Paul wrote in Romans 13:14, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen”