Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Far as the Curse is Found: Celebrating Christmas in a World of Terror

I believe all of the Bible is God's inspired Word, but of all the books it contains, I personally love Isaiah the most!

Its beautiful literary structure is unmatched among his Biblical contemporaries.  His clarity and boldness in a context of people who found his words difficult to believe is refreshing and timely.  And the hope he describes--a hope that transcends his own day and is easily applicable to our own--is the reason I turn so often to this phenomenal piece of Divinely-inspired ancient wisdom.  And this is never more true than at Christmastime.

Our family celebrates Advent in our home every year, and I have purposefully kept us between the pages of Isaiah this year.  A couple of weeks ago, we were focused on the theme of "peace," and my 10-year-old son was given the assignment of reading from Isaiah 16:1-5.  Its a beautiful foretelling of a coming end to oppression.  In its immediate context, the prophet is speaking of the Moabites eventually seeking shelter, peace, and protection among God's people.  But this is a peace that comes as a result of a not-yet-established throne.  It is a throne that will be occupied by a descendant of David.  In other words, the peace that will come to the people of Judah will ultimately come from a Kingdom not yet manifest on earth.

The wider context of this passage (chapters 13-23) supports this by discouraging reliance on any other foreign powers.  Indeed, the main thrust of Isaiah's message to the people of his own day was quite simple:  Trust in the Lord for your security.  Do not trust in foreign alliances.

Something tells me that's a relevant subject for our own day.

We live in a world that is permeated with violence and terror.  Elementary schools get shot up in this world.  Christmas parties get interrupted with bloodshed in this world.  Movie theaters are attacked in this world.  And in the wake of every tragedy, our culture cries out for prevention.  How can we keep this from ever happening again?

Its an understandable question, but one that ultimately has no answer in this temporal world.  To be sure, precautions can be taken, vigilance can be assumed, and laws can even be passed that might help minimize the carnage.  But you can't legislate away the evil hearts which are the origin of these barbarous actions.  And evil hearts aren't confined only in the bodies of a few people who own guns, or a few others who follow radical Islam.  There is one present in each of us.

Yet still, we think the solution is to rely on alliances with certain methodologies and those who subscribe to them.  More recent discussions have revealed this to be an ever-present theme in this upcoming election year.  One party thinks banning guns is the answer.  The other party wants to ban Muslims--keep any more from coming into our country.  (I'm still waiting on someone to suggest banning white guys from movie theaters and public schools, but haven't heard that call just yet.  But I digress.)

And these ideologies teach us that there is a fine line between healthy vigilance and irrational fear.  Vigilance is good and wise.  Fear that moves us to place our ultimate trust in something other than God is useless, and sometimes can motivate us to do things to others that are, candidly, antiChrist.

And why do we behave in such ways?  Because we fall prey to the same sense of false security that was possessed by those in 8th century B.C. Judah.  We may have smart phones and cable news, but where human nature is concerned, it would appear not much has changed in the last 2800 years.

So perhaps when we read a book like Isaiah, we should see our reflection.  To a people that looked to political savy, and the right international relationships to forge security, Isaiah's message was clear for at least ten straight chapters.  Both Babylon and her king would crash like a star from heaven (Chapter 14).  Philistia will be undone from within (Chapter 14).  Moab will be stripped of her resources (Chapter 15).  Damascus will diminish into a heap of ruin (Chapter 17).  Cush will be quickly and suddenly defeated (Chapter 18).  Egypt's power will wane to the point of impotency (Chapter 19.)  Tyre will be reduced to a fishing village surrounded by rubble (Chapter 23).  One by one, as if marking off a regional map, the prophet says to God's people "that nation won't help you.  Those people can't protect you."  And the destruction doesn't stop until Jerusalem herself is consumed.

What is the lesson?  The only real security God's people have is God Himself.  And when we put our ultimate trust in other things--laws, restrictions, national security, alliances with others who promise to keep us safe--God reminds us that eventually, each of these will fail us.

So where does hope come from in an age of terror?

Politics?  "My" candidate will be elected, and he/she will protect me!  Yeah, if you are looking for security from any political leader, you're probably better off just finding a bed to hide under.

The military?  We have the best fighting force in the history of humanity, and I'm very grateful for the men and women who volunteer to defend our nation.  But let's be honest.  They can't protect us from everything.  In fact, if it happens in the homeland, they aren't supposed to!

Geography?  Perhaps there is someone reading this thinking to themselves; "but Joel lives near Washington, D.C.  I don't live there, or in New York, or Los Angeles.  No one even knows I'm here!  My inconspicuousness will be my security!"  Not so fast.  There are only 3000 people living in Bart Township PA, but the nondescript nature of that area did nothing to stop Charles Roberts from opening fire on a school in 2006.  Low population areas are just as prone to violence.

Laws?  "Maybe we should just ban guns."  Most firearms are already banned in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Ask those cities how that's working out for them as they try to curb violence.  Talk to the residents of Paris and ask them whether a gun ban guarantees protection.  I'm not averse to a discussion about how to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but let's not kid ourselves by thinking we can take away any chance of violence by passing a law.  Conversely, while a lot of liberals would like to ban guns, too many conservatives are seriously musing about banning Muslims.  Not only would such an action confirm the narrative ISIS is trying to perpetuate, it fuels the lie that evil is found in any one particular religion.  ALL have sinned.  Evil resides in every heart, including yours and mine, and as long as we live among other people, we will have to contend with the possibility of evil, no matter the religious faith or weapon of choice.  If you don't believe that, try going to Macy's on Black Friday.  Our true nature as fallen human beings is never move obvious than when we are willing to trample another for a 15% discount.

Eschatology?  "We will be raptured out of here before the worst of it starts."  I'm not a "Left Behind" series kind of guy when it comes to the end of the age.  I actually hope my pre-tribulational brothers and sisters are right.  But even if they are, no rapture has yet to deliver us from 9/11, Aurora, Newtown, Paris, Mali, or San Bernadino

If Isaiah were still writing today, I think he might make mention of each of these, and along with Judah's hoped-for foreign alliances, remind us that eventually, they all fail us.  Hope can't be found here.  It can only be found in God.

In other words, genuine hope begins by recognizing and admitting that we are far more vulnerable  than we think we are.

The basis for our hope isn't that we can keep calamity from happening.  Our hope rests in a sovereign God who rules over it, and who 2000 years ago sent His Son into a world that was just as violent as our own.  He didn't seek protection from it.  He lived in it, died at its hand, rose from the dead in triumph over it, and offers His followers that same resurrection power--a power that can only be fully realized in the context of vulnerability.  That kind of hope produces a boldness that Martin Luther described many centuries ago:

Let goods and kindred go
this mortal life also
The body they may kill
God's Truth abideth still
His Kingdom is forever!

People who have placed their ultimate hope in Jesus can live like that.  And people who live like that can celebrate Christmas even in the worst of circumstances.  Because people who live like that know that eventually, the same Christ who incarnated Himself among us will return.  Those temporal things we have trusted to "keep us safe" will vanish, because they won't be needed.  As G.F. Handel wrote so eloquently:

No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.  Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

Followers of Jesus can celebrate Christmas in hope and peace, no matter what transpires around us.  That is the promise of the Gospel for you and me this Christmas.  But its also a promise aimed at the rest of the world--a promise we have been entrusted to deliver through the greatest message in all of human history.  Don't be afraid.  Don't seek factitious peace in temporary assurances of your mortal safety.  Be wise and vigilant, not reactionary and paranoid.  And in the process, follow Jesus as He continues from heaven the mission He began in our history 2000 years ago; to bring blessing and peace.....

...far as the curse is found.

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