By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 29, 2023
Micah 6:1–8 (ESV)
1 Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2 Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3 “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5 O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” 6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This year I challenged myself. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions, and most of us have already given up on those resolutions. But for me I challenged myself to give messages around the Old Testament Lectionary readings this year. And so far this is the first New Year’s resolution that I have made that has lasted through the first month of the new year. Granted I started this at the beginning of the church calendar which actually began the Sunday after Thanksgiving, so technically we are two months in.
The reason that I took on this challenge is because I do not know enough about the Old Testament. I do not know enough about the roots of our faith, which stretch into the deep past. Our faith tradition did not begin when George Fox heard the voice of God in a field as he prayed. It did not even begin when Martin Luther nailed a book to a door of a church in Germany. The roots of our faith stretch deep into history, to the very origin of humanity.
I am not of Hebrew decent, and most of those listening to this message probably lack that pedigree too. But through Jesus, every tribe, every nation, every people group that we have divided based on language, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class is grafted into the heritage of faith that runs as deep as mountains.
We cannot say that we are a New Testament church, because we would be an assembly out of context. We cannot say that we are an American, European, African, or even solely a Friends Church, because we would be a church out of context. We cannot be divided as the world divides. We cannot be Russian, Catholic, Orthodox, English, or Quaker. All of these things give us rich history and heritage but if we stop there, if we neglect to follow the roots deeper. The context of what we call faith begins to drift and we can have a skewed understanding of faith.
Our roots do run deep. We have been grafted into the universal faith, not that I am universalist, but I believe that there is one true faith that is universal. When I say this I do not mean that I believe that all people and all religious ideologies are good and that in the end we all get to heaven. That is not at all what I believe. When I say universal, I mean that there is one true faith. Not faith tradition or even religious expression but true faith.
“Hear what the Lord says:” Today’s passage begins abruptly, like a tornado siren. Hear what the Lord says! Micah is calling out to the people to stop whatever they are doing at that moment and pay attention. Have you ever been in a moment like that? A time and place where everything around us seemed to stand still? I have not been alive too long, but in my lifetime, I have experienced this a couple of times. January 6th, 2021, was one of those days. I do not care what your political leaning is, but on that day the United States of America as we have always known it nearly came to an end. It was not a war that nearly crushed our nation, but ourselves. Our own pride, our own prejudices, and our inability to be considerate of others. It baffles me, we are one of the most generous nations on the face of this earth and yet when we do not get our way we in a short period of history, we were willing to throw it all away.
The second day that I seemed to notice time standing still was September 11th,2001. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that news. And I remember my first phone call after. It was the first time in my life that I felt vulnerable. There are other moments like these, December 6th might be one for some of you, the day Pearl Harbor was attached, Maybe the day President Regan was shot, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Maybe they were positive like your wedding day or the day you became a parent for the first time. These moments are wakeup calls, they grab our attention and in many ways demand that we stop and examine our lives. Hear what the Lord says!
Micah, who was a contemporary of Isaiah, had one of those moments. We do not know much about this prophet. We know from Jerimiah that he prophesied in the days of Hezekiah, and beyond that we really do not know much else for sure. Even though Micah says where he is from we are not exactly sure where geographically it is. But from the few clues that we have from scripture, we can make some good theories. Isaiah prophesied and witnessed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, and it is believed that Micah also lived during that time frame. It is believed that he lived between the central hill country of Judah and the coastal plain, which was in the direct path of the campaign of Assyria as they marched toward Jerusalem. This would mean that Micah lived through the horrors of that invasion and saw the glory of God revealed as Assyria fled from Jerusalem after God invaded their camp one night during their siege. That is one of the moments I am speaking about. And Micah was inspired by God to write these words.
“Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an Indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.”
The first thing I want us to consider is the symbolism of mountains. I mentioned earlier that our faith runs as deep as the mountains, but we may not fully understand what that means. This might seem like a flat earth conspiracy theory, but it is not. In ancient Israel they often explained the earth as being flat, with a vault arching over them like a great dome in ancient cathedrals. The earth as they knew it was situated in the great deep, which they saw as the sea. And the mountains were the pillars that extended into the great deep to keep the ground firm. We cannot always look at scripture to determine physical reality, because the people that wrote scripture were speaking of the world that they knew using the senses they possessed. When Micah speaks of the mountains, He is speaking of the things that have witnessed true history. The things that were before humanity existed. If the mountains could speak imagine the stories they could tell.
But that is not all that was believed about mountains. Last week I spoke briefly about sacred rivers, mountains also have a prominent role in ancient religious thought. Mountains were the dwelling places of the deities. In Hebrew the term Elohim which we often regard as God, was used for many different spiritual beings. And these spiritual beings were often regarded as sons of God. Some scholars might argue that when the people were divided at Babel, the Most High God, divided the people among these spiritual beings, and they became the nations. Each nation had their own Elohim to guide and direct them, and each of these Elohim were basically subcontractors to Yahweh. In most ancient near east religions mountains were the dwelling places of the Elohim. Consider the pyramids of Egypt. They did not have mountains around the Nile, so they built mountains. This is also what many scholars believe to be what drove those at Babel to build the tower, and that the confusion that was because humanity believed themselves to be equal to the divine. I want us to think of these two themes when we look at this passage. God’s divine council, that was created to rule over the earth seated atop sacred mountains, and the mountains as the foundation of the earth witnessing the deep history of humanity.
God is calling out to the mountains, He is asking them to consider his case. These mountains know all that has transpired. These mountains have witnessed every human activity, every war, every sacrifice, everything. They know the trips that humanity has made up their slopes in vain attempts to be closer to God, and they know the truth behind those journeys.
“O my people,” God says, “what have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” In this phrase God is asking Israel, what has he done to cause them to reject him. The mountains knew the history. The mountains witnessed the history. The mountains, some might say were, participating in this betrayal.
“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron , and Miriam.”
This is the story of the creation of Israel as a unique people or nation. Sure Abraham existed prior to this but it was only after the Exodus that the nation was formed. But Micah suggests something interesting here. As I was reading through this, and I hope as you listened to me read it, I noticed something. God said, I brought you out of the land, and redeemed you. I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Only twice is Miriam mentioned outside the first five books of the Old Testament. This led me to consider why Micah mentioned her here.
I have mentioned several times that bible study can be fun at times. And this side quest of Miriam opened my eyes in many ways. There are traditions within the Hebrew faith that attempt to explain areas that the rabbis find are not fully explained in scripture, these writings are called the Midrash. One of these stories or commentaries revolves around Miriam. And Micah includes her in this list because she was regarded as one of the leaders of the Exodus. Each of the three represented the necessities required for survival. Moses brought the Manna or food, Aaron the cloud of God’s presence since he was the priest. But Mariam was regarded as the source or the provider of water. I found this interesting especially since Moses was the one that struck the stone that became Mariam’s well. This striking of the stone was the thing that prevented Moses from entering the promised land. It was Moses’s punishment. This then led me to investigate Miriam’s punishment.
The story is that Moses married a Cushite woman. I have often wondered how Moses came into contact with a Cushite woman while they wandered through the desert, but that is not the point. Miriam was upset about this union. It is presented that she was upset because the woman was Cushite. Mariam was upset that Moses, the leader of Israel, took a wife from outside the nation. I always regarded Mariam as a racist, but I learned something this week. She might not have been upset because of the race, but because of faith. She was afraid that if Moses took a wife from outside their nation, God might leave their camp. And because of Miriam’s opposition she faced a punishment, God gave her leprosy.
Those with leprosy were removed from fellowship with Israel. They were outside the nation, No longer a participant in the promised people. My entire life Miriam’s punishment was taught as a sign of not questioning the authority of God’s appointed leaders. But was this really her punishment or was it a lesson? Aaron claimed that it was a punishment but God never did. The cloud came down upon them and God gave the three of them a stern talking down for their squabbling and then when the cloud lifted Mariam had the disease. She was removed from the tribe for seven days. The interesting thing is that the camp did not move those seven days. She was removed or excluded from the nation, and yet the nation remained until she was returned to them.
Scripture often leaves lessons in a vague state. We can easily to read into scripture that God was upset that Miriam spoke out against Moses, but I think there is more to it. Miriam spoke out against the inclusion of the Cushite woman in the nation. She was concerned that this outsider was going to pull them away from God, or drive God away from them. The lesson could be that God excluded Miriam from the nation by giving her leprosy so that she could understand that it is God that makes us acceptable or not. God excluded Miriam for a period, and then God made her acceptable once again. God did this, not Miriam. This taught me something. We should be slow to judge because it is God that makes us acceptable or not. The Cushite woman was accepted into the camp at that point because God accepted her just as he restored Miriam.
Miriam was included as a fundamental part of the Exodus story according to Micah. She was one pillar in the triad that formed their nation and faith. And she was a participant in a great lesson that we all need to learn.
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” This is where most people are. We are all striving to do religion. We want to stand before God as he cries out to the mountains and say I have been good. But the mountains know the truth. They know and God knows that for all the good that we do, there is just as much failure. Paul tells us in Romans, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:22-24 ESV)
What can we do to satisfy God? What can we do to be good?
This brings us to the eighth verse. “He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
What does God require? What is it that God seeks for us a humanity to do? What is his expectation? Justice, kindness, and humility.
This eighth verse of Micah chapter 6 is often regarded as the one verse explanation of faith. This one verse explains the extent of the law that Jesus proclaimed, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37b-40 ESV).
God requires of you and of me three things. Justice. Today justice is a catchphrase. We have social justice warriors, and we have conservatives that often speak of those that seek social justice as being liberals. And yet justice is required by God. This is why I spent so much time speaking about Miriam. She wanted to exclude the Cushite wife of Moses. She had her reasons, and to her those reasons were justified. But she did not treat that woman with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves as a bearer of God’s image. Because all people were created in that image. Not just Men but women, not just Israel but the Gentiles. God’s image is not white or black, but includes us all. Every unique expression of humanity can give us a glimpse of God. Yes, every fallen person, even the vilest as much as it pains me to say.
The people God desires, the people God seeks, and requires do justice. This means we must step back from our own desires and look at those around us as being equal in the eyes of God. Each of us have needs and are needed from the lowest to the highest. But this is not all that God requires. He also requires us to love kindness.
Chesed, the Hebrew word we translate as kindness, is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Chesed is grace. It is hospitality. It is us giving to others not what they deserve, but what we ourselves would like to have done to and for us.
And the final thing that Micah lists in the righteous triad, walk humbly with your God. The verb to walk in this sense is a way of life or a lifestyle. To walk is to be mindful of your actions, to examine what you do and your intentions. It is to live the words we speak, in front of all who know you, what you believe. We are to walk, but as we walk we should be humble.
The Hebrew word for humble is only used two times in the Old Testament, here and in Proverbs 11:2. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” Often when we use humility improperly. Our parents humiliate us, as our children also do. To be humble is to live circumspectly or scrupulously. Yes, the books I read this week used big words and I had to look them up. This basically means to live in a careful, prudent, thorough, and discreet manner. When coupled with the verb to walk humbly it really means to live honestly. Know who you are, where you are, as you are, and strive to always improve. Humility is not acting as if you do not deserve honor or respect. It is accepting what is given and continuing on. To live in false humility is to be prideful. But this is all in relation to each other. Which is very important because we should love our neighbors as ourselves, but Micah tells us to walk humbly with your God.
If humility among men is to be honest. Humility with God is also honesty. Can you honestly say that you are good to all people? I am good most of the time, but not all the time. I have angered many people. I probably angered some even as I speak today, If I cannot stand before my peers and say I am good to all people, how can I say I am a good person before God? Humility. Walking with God is not about being perfect as much as the Wesley Holiness movement would like to believe, perfection in humanity is impossible. But humility is something that can be done. I can honestly say that I try. I can honestly say that I am a much better person today than I was even a year ago. And going back twenty years, you might not even recognized me. But perfect, no. God has told us what he desires. He wants us to participate in justice, live it out in all our actions. He wants us to extend kindness, grace and hospitality. And he wants us to live mindfully of who we are before humankind, and before him. This is the true universal faith of which I spoke. Justice, kindness, and walking in humility with God. These are not things that we do once and move on but they are things that we must continually participate in, every moment of every day. The moment we begin to think we have become righteous in ourselves, we, like Miriam are shown our own leprosy. But God is just, God is kind, and God humbly walks with us. God knows that we are not perfect and yet while we were still sinners, while we were still at odds with Him, Christ died for us. He knows who we are and he loves us anyway. He brought each of us into that deep and rich history of faith as old as the mountains, and like Moses’s Cushite wife we are accepted into the camp of wandering Israelites. So as we go out this week let us not worry about being right or wrong. Let us not worry about who is right and who is wrong. Instead let us take a walk with God. Let us live lives of justice, kindness and humility. Let us become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Amen!
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 22, 2023
Isaiah 9:1–4 (ESV)
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
There will be no gloom for her. This week’s passage is obviously connected directly to the previous chapter, but we are not going to read it. If you want to know everything that is going on I encourage you to read it for yourself. But the simplified version is, Israel has really messed up and things are going to get really bad really quick. And yet even though Isaiah has given this dire proclamation, he then says this. “But there will be no gloom for her who is in anguish.”
When we look at this I wonder if Isaiah understands what anguish is? I extensively researched this one word. I poured into it to better understand and in my google search I found that anguish means, “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” Or “[to] be extremely distressed about something.” I have to admit I did not extensively research the word. I just googled the definition and that was the first thing that came up, but the reality is that I do not need to look it up because anguish is something we all feel. We do not need a dictionary to tell us what anguish means. We just have to think about how we are going to afford college for our children. I feel it whenever my gas tank is nearly empty. Anguish is that feeling we have when we are at the end of ourselves and we have nowhere else to turn. It is extreme mental or physical pain or suffering. It is distress. It is the uncertainty of life.
I admit that most of my anguish seems superficial to the anguish that people face in other places. A few years back the running joke was, “this is a first world problem.” Which basically means that it is ridiculous to be distressed about this when there are wars, famines, and diseases raging throughout this world. But that does not change the emotions of the situation. To a toddler the fact that chicken nuggets and dino nuggets are of the same substance, the fact that dino nuggets are not on their plate is a tragedy that they may never recover from. We have goals, we have expectations, we have ideas and desires that we want to be fulfilled, and when those things do not turn out our world seemingly falls apart.
The Northern Kingdom, Israel, was going to fall. Not only would it fall but it would fall to one of the most notoriously vile empires of the ancient world. There is a reason Jonah jumped on a ship for Spain instead of going to Nineveh. Nineveh one of the prominent cities in Assyria was the complete opposite of everything Israel stood for. You would be counted lucky if you died in the battle, because to be taken captive was dehumanizing. Torture, genocide, and the eradication of culture was what they took pride in. When the northern kingdom fell under the dominion of Assyria, Israel disappeared. To this day we speak of the ten lost tribes of Israel. We speak of them because even in the days of Jesus, even though the people of Judah lived in the land promised to their fore fathers, many believed that they were still in exile because those lost tribes had not yet returned.
This is something that I believe we in our globalized world are losing. I know that this is one of those triggering words, globalization, but the real problem is not that China is taking our jobs. The real problem is that we lose home.
Globalization did not do this. This has been happening throughout human existence. Humanity in urbanization is losing connection to the land they were created to steward. What drove people west in America? It was not that there were jobs in the west, but land. They had an opportunity to have a place that they could call home. Land that they could tame to provide for their family. And something of lasting value that they could pass on to those that came after them. It is not globalization that is the problem, we have lost our home. We, myself included, have left the farms seeking opportunity in the shining cities. We leave the places that we once knew. We uproot ourselves, and we lose our identity. This is the anguish that Isaiah speaks of, homelessness. Not in the sense of not having shelter, but uprootedness. We are unanchored, adrift. Who are we?
I have thought a great deal about these things, because I guess I do not have enough to worry about so I contemplate weird stuff. There are times when I will look at scripture and think. What was the real reason for the flood during the days of Noah? If you read the first half of Genesis, not as a science text book but as a story of the human condition, something quite amazing happens. After the fall Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer, someone that tilled the ground and raised produce and Abel was a shepherd he domesticated livestock. Historically speaking this is a story of the start of civilization. The domestication of grains and livestock is what allowed civilization to emerge. We no longer had to chase after wild animals and forage for berries. Instead, we could raise our own food. But the story is not happy, jealousy quickly overtook our first siblings. Cain was envious of Abel, and killed him. Cain wanted the something that Abel had, favor. Cain was not content and he desired more, and he was willing to kill to obtain what he wanted. It was Cain’s descendants that built the first city. It was through Cain that urbanization began and the quest for more territory, more wealth, more and more took root.
Cain was unhinged, set to drift, and wander throughout the world. He feared for his life because of this. It was this fear that drove Cain to establish the cities where he could control and order life. We look down on Cain but so often that is who we most resemble. We want more, and we fear that someone else will take what we have. We are adrift, unhinged, living in discontent, homeless even though we have everything.
Israel lost their land. They, like Cain, were cast out to wander without a place to call home. They lost their identity. There is anguish there. I experienced this. As much as I love where I live, I am a simple farm boy. How can I become content in a foreign land? How can I live in a culture that is so different from what I once knew? Some of you are looking at me thinking that I do not truly know this feeling and you are right, the anguish I feel may not be as extreme as yours, but the emotions are the same. And yet Isaiah says to these people “there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. “How can we have no gloom through the anguish we feel?
When Assyria conquered Israel, they came from the north east. We may know of a geological region within the Middle East called the fertile crescent. This crescent of land encompasses all of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to just beyond the Jordan River, north to the Taurus Mountains in Southern Turkey, and along the Zagros Mountains just east of the Tigris river until the river empties into the Persian gulf. The Assyrians followed this crescent west. They conquered the land south of the Taurus Mountain range and pushed their way into Israel. And Naphtali and Zebulun were the first tribes to meet this invading force.
“In the former time he brought into contempt the land.” Isaiah tells us, “but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
Israel was a nation situated between the empires of the known ancient world. Egypt to the west and Mesopotamia to the east. Assyria was one of the great empires of Mesopotamia. We think globalization is bad today, but the reality is that what we know as globalization has been occurring as long as humans have existed. There was a trade route between these empires that followed the fertile crescent through Israel connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt. This route was known throughout ancient cultures as the way of the sea. This portion of this ancient trade route followed the Jordan River from the Dead Sea, past the sea of Galilee, and along the mountain range beyond the Jordan. The land beyond the Jordan that Isaiah is speaking of is what Israel knew as East Manasseh, because half of the tribe of Manasseh settled on the east bank of the Jordan. All this geography is important, even though it is dry because it speaks to the history of faith in the ancient world.
The Jordan we know is a sacred river to the people of Israel, like the Nile is important to Egypt, and the Tigris is to Assyria. Water is life. And the source of this water is often regarded as the mountain of God. It is in the land beyond the Jordan, from one particular mountain called Hermon that Israel’s sacred river began its journey to the sea.
I have spoken often about this particular mountain. It is believed that Mount Hermon is the very mountain that Jesus climbed to pray and while he prayed that day, his disciples saw his glory as he was transfigured before them. There is more to this one mountain. Jesus, on one of his journeys through Galilee traveled to Caesarea Philippi. This city was built at the base of Mt Hermon, and near this city is a cave that is referred to as the Grotto of Pan.
Pan according to Greek Mythology is god of the wild. But this cave was not only associated with the Greeks. Other religions throughout the ancient world found this one cave as being important. Even the religion of Israel. When we think of anguish and gloom, we often associate it with the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but if we continue to read Genesis, we see that there was a second fall so to speak. Cain’s descendants wandered in the wilderness and eventually established cities. While Adam and Eve’s third son Seth followed his father and remained tending the flocks. Eventually we are told that the Sons of God found delight in the daughters of Men and had offspring with them. The children of these unions were called Nephilim, the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
If we were to study the writings of the Ancient Near East most cultures have a similar story. Babylon might say that their god’s and their kings were the men of renown that we read about in scripture. And the book of Enoch would tell us that the Watchers or the sons of God that found the daughters of man beautiful taught their offspring forbidden knowledge of war, and various forms of magic. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…and the Lord regretted that he had made man .. . and it grieved his heart.” This is where Noah comes into the story and the flood. Noah was the only man that walked blameless in his generation. I bring this up because Enoch says that it was on the mountain known as Hermon that this second fall occurred. And Enoch goes on to say that God sent the Watchers to Tartarus, or hell, The Grotto of Pan to many in the ancient world was the gate to Hell. And it was in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus said, “upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
Isaiah is reminding Israel of where the anguish originates. It is the fall of humanity. It is the wild chaos of jealousy and greed of our ancestors who sought forbidden knowledge to gain undeserved profits and power that causes our sorrows. But if we turn, if we remain faithful to the ways of our fathers there will not be gloom even in this chaos. Because in the later time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
Isaiah then breaks out in song. The poem that begins in verse 2 through verse 7 is a hymn of praise, and hope.
Isaiah 9:2–7 (ESV)
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Today, on this third Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of this hope. We see this hope as fulfilled in Jesus, but the people that lived through the anguish that Isaiah described also found hope in these words.
Darkness often refers to hopelessness and despair. People that walk in darkness are those that cannot see hope. We live in dark times. We often look out at the world in which we live, and all we see is pain and suffering. There is pain. There is suffering. Some of us experience it, and we want to find someone to blame for this suffering. That is why words like globalism trigger many of us. We dwell in the darkness, we wallow in despair, but is this the life that Christ calls us to? The people who walked in darkness. Notice the past tense of the verb, walked. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Light is also a symbolic word. Fear lives in the darkness, the unknown. But when light enters it casts out all fear and what was once hidden is now revealed. In John’s gospel we are told:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
I want us to consider John’s introduction to his gospel in light of Isaiah’s hymn of praise. I want us to consider what it means as we walk through our times of anguish and darkness. Where is our attention? Cain walked in fear, in jealousy, and in greed. He built a civilization on fear which led to the proliferation of tools of war to protect him against those that might take from him the things he did not deserve. It is not just history, but a story of our own life.
Two weeks ago we spent some time in reflection on the first Query within our faith and practice. In that query, one statement stands out, “Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs?” Unduly absorbed speaks to our attention. Where are we focusing our attention? Is our attention being directed by the twenty-four-hour news cycle? Is our attention focused solely on our budgets or our grades, or our work? What happens when those things fail us? Where do we stand? We are left like Cain wandering in fear and anguish, but “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has a light shone.”
What do we do when the bottom falls out from under us? What do we do when our dreams deteriorate, and we are uprooted and live as strangers in a foreign land? We seek the light. We build a community around that light, and we establish roots. We focus on what we have instead of what we do not have. We praise God for the blessings instead of complaining about our lack. And we sow seeds of hope.
I am a farm boy living in exile. I am displaced but not in despair because I have a home. I have a community. I have friends with whom I can share life. I have a community that accepts me to be who I am and that encourages me to become a man loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. I have a home, and I pray that as you walk in a land of deep darkness you too will have a great light shone on you, and that you too will know God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the true light, the true Word, and our true hope.
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 8, 2023
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Isaiah 42:1–9 (ESV)
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. 9 Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany. I do not know if you have ever had an epiphany or not, but if you have, or ever do, you will notice something spectacular. Things begin to make sense. All at once the struggles you faced, the classes you were required to enroll in, and even algebra suddenly come into focus and life makes sense for a moment. An epiphany is a revelation. In the church calendar we celebrate the great revelation on January 6. For centuries the church on the closing of the twelve days of Christmas, celebrate this revelation. We, with the saints of old, are reminded just who the baby born in Bethlehem is.
It is on Epiphany we remember the day Jesus was presented in the temple. That presentation we often overlook. By law the first male child born of a woman is dedicated to God. This means that by law the first born male is to be devoted to God, or belongs to God. This sounds odd but it was one of ceremonial laws in Torah that provided an image of a tangible reminder to Israel about their relationship with God. Since Jesus was the first born of Mary, Jesus belonged to God.
This dedication was to illustrate to the people that everyone in Israel has a place and responsibility to God. So the first born male of a woman would be taken to the temple and the father would redeem the son from God. Offering a ransom and a sacrifice, and once the sacrifice was made the child would be released from the obligation and their responsibility would be given to those within the tribe of Levi. The presentation of Jesus at the temple reminds us that our Messiah is a priest. But this presentation Is not the only Epiphany we celebrate on this day, we also celebrate the visit of the Magi.
Last year David, our clerk, presented a great message about the Magi when I was away due to COVID. The revelation of the Magi reminds us that the child was not an ordinary child, but a king. I want us to really contemplate this. Magi, wise men from the lands of the east, most likely religious leaders or scientists from the land of Persia traversed across the desert bearing gifts fit for a royal courts. They made their way to an ordinary town, visited an ordinary house, and fell l to their knees in honor and reverence to present these royal treasures to seemingly ordinary people. And they left these gifts there. I want you to really consider that image in your mind. They were not in the palace of a king and yet in their mind the child Jesus, was the rightful king of the people of Israel.
Even the royal epiphany does not fully encompass what we celebrate in this season of revelation, there is a third mystery. During the second temple period of ancient Judah, there was confusion or a diversity of thought around the messiah. There were some scholars that believed that there could be not one but three messianic figures. This comes from the concept of the three offices of power spoken about in scripture among the people of God. The priest, the king, and the prophet. The presentation of Jesus at the temple honors the priestly office. The visitors of the magi spoke to the royal office. But what about the prophet?
We often have a skewed understanding of prophets and prophecy in our contemporary era of church history. We believe that prophets receive messages from God that predict the future. This is one aspect of the office of the prophet, but it t is deeper than this. I do not believe that God is in the habit of baking fortune cookies. In the introductory verses of most books of the prophets there is a similar story, they have an experience where they are given a direct message from God and commissioned to a particular mission. Many of these stories speak of the prophet being transported in some manner to visit the very throne of God. Meaning the prophets are commissioned and anointed for a particular mission in the very presence of the Most High God. Jesus was anointed and commissioned for his unique mission when John baptized him in the Jordan. The season of epiphany is the revelation of mission and person of the Messiah.
Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one that was hoped for. He is the true priest, king, and prophet. He is the one on a mission from the Most High. Jesus is the light that will illuminate all people and nations. But what does that mean?
Today we read two passages of scripture. The first, from Mark, is a question from the religious scholars of that age of history. They ask what the greatest commandment is. We look at words like commandment, and our mind usually goes to sin and guilt. We regard the commandments as law. This is not wrong, but if we only look at the commandments as law we can often fall short of the beauty and richness of scripture. I often refer to life as a journey, and the commandments are in many ways the markers, or sign posts that direct us along the path. These scholars ask Jesus, what is most important. They ask this for a variety of reasons, but at the heart of the question is something we all ask. What is our purpose? What is the point of this life?
This is also the question that faced Israel in the exile. Isaiah wrote his oracles prior to this disgraceful point of their history. But within the words of condemnation there are songs of hope. Isaiah outside of the Psalms is one of the most quoted books of the Hebrew scriptures within the writings of the 2nd temple period, which also includes the writings within the New Testament. It is quoted because during the exile Israel lost everything. They lost their homes, their nation, their future, and worst of all they lost their God. I say this not because this is a reality, but emotionally. Their faith, their identity, their world hinged on the temple and it was in the temple that their God lived. How do you live? How do you remain a distinct people or nation when you lose it all? What is your purpose? You were once walking along the path and all of a sudden you find yourself lost in the thorns and weeds without a compass.
In the first half of Isaiah, we learn that God needs to send someone out on a mission to warn the people of the impending disaster. This is where Isaiah is caught up in a vision, standing before the throne of God. He saw God sitting on his throne with the shining ones singing and dancing around him, and Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Then all at once one of the Seraphim flew at him with a burning coal from the alter. Imagine what this man was thinking at that moment! If an angelic being came swooping in on me with a burning coal, I would probably think the end was at hand, it would not even have to be an angel swooping in. If you were running toward me with a fiery torch my fight or flight instinct would kick in. This angelic being touched his lips with the coal and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Immediately after this Isaiah hears the voice of God say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah saw something dramatic. He saw reality. He saw God’s commandments fully lived before his eyes, and he saw that he himself with all of his self-righteousness was lacking.
According to the kingdoms of men, Isaiah was good. He was a member of the court of Judah, he was a high ranking member within the government of the covenantal kingdom of God. He was righteous. But when he saw the throne, he knew that he fell short.
What is our purpose, the scribes asked Jesus? Who are we? The exiles of Israel asked as they wandered in Babylon. There is one commandment Jesus, our Epiphany says, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He goes on to say the second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
They are simple words. Words that we can easily memorize. Some of us may even have pillows on our couch that have these words embroidered on them. But if you were standing in the midst of angels before the throne of God could you say these words were incarnate in you?
This was the purpose of humanity from the dawn of our creation. This was the purpose of God calling Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This was the point of King David, the purpose of the temple. This was all God wanted, and all God wants. And each step along the journey of life we have an opportunity to live into that purpose, but we tend to stumble off the path.
“Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ?” The Faith and Practice of our Yearly Meeting asks, “Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?”
“Behold my servant,” Isaiah writes here near the end of his teachings. In this first Servant Song. What he is saying here is, “Look at this!” It is not just fancy words, but it is like the emergency alerts that every cellphone receives at once. “Behold my servant!” And why does God want us to look at this servant? Who is it anyway?
Scholars have debated over this for years, even though history and tradition within the church has told us who the servant is. They debate, maybe the servant is Cyrus the king of Persia, maybe its Israel, maybe its us. Even 2nd century Jewish writings would tell us that the servant is the Messiah and not anyone else. Isaiah after he has borne witness to the devastation of Israel is telling them, “Do not lose hope, behold God’s Servant is coming.”
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Justice is one of those triggering words in our contemporary culture. It grieves my heart that it is because it speaks to the very core of our faith. This one word is used three times in this song.
What is justice? Justice or Mispat can mean judgment, court, case, decision, justice, law, plan, share, or custom or practice. We can see this as a legal term, but it is more than that. God’s justice is Eden. It is the Edenic life where Humanity and Divinity walk together in the cool of the evening chatting about the day. God’s servant will bring forth or restore God’s original and only plan. That may not be exactly what you consider when you think of justice, but it goes back to the command Jesus gives in Mark. God wants us to love him, and our neighbor. That is the plan that God has always had, and it has never changed. What would our community be like if this was truly how we lived?
“He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” When we look at these words at face value we do not get the fullness of the statement. He will not cry aloud, does not necessarily mean speaking with a loud voice, but is in reference to a cry out to God in Lamentation. Isaiah, God really, is saying that his servant will not just pray, “Lord help me.”, but will take an active role in the situation. When we pray, the answers to our prayers and the prayers of others are often ourselves. We pray, not just for God’s deliverance but for guidance and clarity. The servant of God does not utter empty words, but becomes the very words made flesh, willing to work.
Isaiah then continues by saying, “lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” Although this looks like Isaiah is repeating himself in English, these verbs are different. The first is despair and the second is protest. In ancient times the people of the city would often gather at the gates or a central location, to present their case before the elders. The elders would hear the case and make a judgment, and that judgment would be the law of the land. If you felt you were on the wrong end of the ruling what could you do? Nothing really, the judgment had been made. All that is left is screaming at the top of your lungs that you were treated unfairly.
I had an epiphany moment, during my study this week at this point. These are the things that God’s servant will not do. God’s servant will not cry out in despair, seeking pity but not lifting a finger to participate in the solution. And God’s servant will not protest about the injustices endured, without participating in activities to remove the opportunities for these injustice to occur. Pity and vain protest are empty words. They are vessels of brokenness and division, not true justice. When we participate in these empty words, we puff ourselves up thinking we have accomplished something, but in reality, all we have contributed to is more brokenness and suffering. As I read about these words I noticed my social media feeds were filled with stories about January 6th two years ago. I read this after listening to countless stories of rigged elections and pleas to take our country back. That is not justice, but a riot. And it is wrong.
Isaiah continues, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”
To us these verses might just seem poetic, but there is more to these words than we might realize. This is why it is important to study and to learn to use tools available to us. The words used for bruised reed and grow faint or be discouraged, come from a similar root word that means splintered or broken. Isaiah uses this poetry to illustrate the true purpose of the Servant of God, and those that follow this servant.
Isaiah acknowledges that life will not be fair. Life is filled with suffering and will always be filled with suffering because humanity has diverted its attention away from the original plan of God and has instead replaced it with plans of their own. Russia states within their media, that Ukraine is filled with fascists and satanists. We say Russia is filled with fascists and communists. Ukraine is living in that no man’s land between two powerful entities and people like me are sitting in their recliners spouting off empty words of what they should do. This is not justice. Ukraine and so many other people groups and nations within our world are bruised reeds. They are splintered and broken. They like us are walking their journey through life attempting to find the path. And forces of human distraction are coming in telling them what they should do.
But God comes in through his servant. God reveals himself and instead of splintering the reed and increasing the brokenness the servant becomes a conduit of healing and encouragement.
“Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: ‘I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no others, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.’”
What is our purpose? What is our point in life? To Love God and love our neighbors. To become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We are to join the Servant of God in restoring Eden to the earth. And this begins right here in this meetinghouse, in our families, and in our communities. As we go out this week let our life be filled with God’s justice. Love for him and those around us. And let us not perpetuate the brokenness of the human kingdoms with empty words and vain activities. May the love and light of Gods Epiphany, Gods revelation, illuminate the pathways of our life.
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