Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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Visions of Jesus

Isaiah 12:1-6 and Zephaniah 3:9-20

 I made a decision before Advent that I would try to bring the Old Testament prophecies to the forefront this year.  I’m not usually eager to preach on Old Testament prophecy.  I seldom find them to be “easy preaching texts.”  Too often, I’m afraid that when I preach on them, I have a tendency to reduce it to, “Here’s what it says, this is what it means, and this is how Jesus fulfilled it.”  Even if that’s true, I don’t usually find it to be “good preaching.”  But I also need to challenge myself from time to time in my preaching.  I need to go after those things that I want to avoid if I want my preaching to improve.  

 So here we are.  We have heard two of the Old Testament prophecies that we understand to apply to Jesus Christ.  What I hope is that we will see that they expand our understanding both of what Jesus has already done, but also, what he will yet do.  

 Let’s look first at Isaiah.  Isaiah 12 is a conclusion to the first section of Isaiah’s prophecy.  Throughout the first 11 chapters, the focus has been on the sins of Judea, and the looming threat of coming judgment.  But this section ends with a promise that after the judgment, which was the Exile into Babylon, there will be a new Exodus, a restoration of God’s people.  They will be gathered from the ends of the earth.  

 The immediate context of this prophecy is the return from Babylon.  But one of the things we often see in Old Testament prophecy is that a certain prophecy might apply to more than one situation.  It might have an immediate fulfillment, but then also a later fulfillment.  And I think that’s the case here, because in Isaiah 12, he uses the phrase “In that day” twice.  That was a phrase that often signaled that prophecy was looking forward to a future day, the day of God’s final deliverance, the Day of the Lord.  

 Isaiah says, “In that day… God has come to save me… the Lord God… has become my salvation.”  In the Old Testament, the word salvation usually meant “an act of deliverance from captivity.”  The great act of salvation in the Old Testament was the deliverance from captivity in Egypt, and to a lesser extent it was echoed in the return from Babylon.  But now salvation becomes not an act, but a person, a person who comes to his people.  

 God doesn’t just do something to save us.  God comes to us and becomes our salvation.  Jesus is our salvation.  It’s a thought that’s echoed in the New Testament.  When the old prophet Simeon saw the infant Jesus in the Temple, he said to God, “I

have seen your salvation.”  In the Book of the Revelation, Jesus appears as a Lamb that was slain.  He takes the form of what he did.  He saved by his own sacrifice.  He became salvation.  Faith in God’s salvation becomes personal.  It becomes faith in the one who is our salvation.  We don’t just believe God did something.  We believe God is something.  

 And we drink deeply from the well of salvation.  Of course, a well is full of water.  And water gives life.  We can’t live without water.  But Isaiah foretold of a Savior who would offer water freely and without cost.  And Jesus told the woman at the well that he gives the water of life.  Salvation is not just something God does.  It’s what he has become in Jesus.  When we partake of Jesus, when we receive him into our lives like drinking water, then we have eternal life, we have salvation.  

 Zephaniah’s prophecy extends our understanding of Jesus and his work in several other ways.  

 First, Jesus offers us a change of heart.  The prophet Ezekiel told us that the problem with humanity is that our hearts have been hardened by sin.  Our hearts have become like stone.  That was the reason that God’s acts of salvation in the Old Testament did not have lasting consequences; they didn’t change people’s hearts.  God delivered people from captivity or trouble, and they were grateful, but it didn’t take long before their nature came out and they rebelled against God.  Sin was rooted too deeply in their hearts.

 Now we live in an age where that’s no longer a popular concept.  The world today rejects the idea that we are born in sin and have sin rooted in our hearts.  Today the world says, “People are basically good.  If they just receive the right education and influences, they’ll do good things.”  But I think that if we’re honest about ourselves and look at the world around us, it’s much more obvious that we have something deeply wrong in us.  What else could explain the ways in which we treat each other?  What else could explain the terrible evils that supposedly “good” people are capable of?  

 We need a change from outside of ourselves, and that’s what Jesus offers.  He offers to purify us and make it so that we will no longer be rebels against him.  That’s the essence of sin: rebellion.  Rebellion is when we overthrow authority and put ourselves in charge.  That’s what sin is.  Rejecting God’s authority and making ourselves the rulers of the universe, or at least the ruler of our own lives.  For that to change, we

need a change in our very nature, and that’s the change Jesus does through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

 The second thing Zephaniah tells us that the Messiah will do is that he will create a new and unified people.

 One of the interesting things he hints at in this passage is that there will be a reversal of the Tower of Babel.  In the book of Genesis, we are told that the reason there are so many languages is because God confused our languages at a place called Babel.  But in the Messianic era, this will be reversed, and we will again come together in a common tongue for a common purpose: to praise God.  I think this is something that is already happening in the world today.  But it will find its fullness when Christ returns.  Then the whole world will speak a common language of praise.

 And we will also be brought together in other ways, too.  Zephaniah saw God’s people being gathered even from beyond the rivers of Cush.  Cush, also called Ethiopia or Nubia, was the southernmost region of Egypt.  It was the end of the known world for ancient Hebrews.  God’s people from around the world will be brought together to live in peace.  There will be no fear, no lies, no deception among them.    

 God’s justice will triumph.  We may be tempted to think of God’s justice in terms of retribution; God paying back the wrongs others have done.  But I think a better understanding of justice is a radical forgiveness that allows people to move forward into restored relationships.  Retribution might make us feel better for a moment, but it is not as satisfying or productive as restored relationships.

 And finally, when Messiah comes, he will turn the world’s system of values on its head.  Pride and arrogance will be banished and only the lowly and humble who trust in God will find a place there.

 This is the opposite of the world.  The world values self-reliance, building oneself up, even at the expense of others, even if it means using other people to accomplish our own selfish goals.  The world embraces a way of living that measures worth by one’s wealth, power, and status.  

 But Jesus turned the world upside down.  He instituted a set of values where greatness is measured by the willingness to serve one another humbly, and in love.  

 Well, these are all pretty marvelous visions of the Messianic era.  But what should we do with them?  How do we respond to what God promises to do in Jesus Christ?  

 Some say that it is up to us to make them realities. Some say that we are the ones who labor to create a “heaven on earth,” a utopia where justice and fairness reign.  That’s certainly a lofty goal.  The problem is that most people do not live under the reign of Christ.  How can we bring in a Christian world when most people are not Christians?  And even those of us who are Christians are not yet perfected by God’s grace.  

 So on the other hand, there are some who say that we should just wait for Jesus to return and make all these things a reality.  There’s nothing we can do for the world in the meantime.  So we should just let the world go to a certain place in a proverbial handbasket.  The problem with that view is that it doesn’t give us much of an opportunity to be “salt and light,” does it?  

 I think the best answer is a middle way, a way that acknowledges that this vision is both who we will be and also who we are becoming.  Just because the final goal is unreachable doesn’t mean that we can’t be going in that direction.  

 So as we draw close to Christmas, let us meditate on this:  Are we honoring the coming of Messiah by making our world more like his vision of it?  Are we seeking to bring people together or to divide them?  Are we seeking to speak in truth and love that all can understand?  Are we living by the values of the world or the values of the Kingdom of God?  Are we seeking to change hearts and to have our own hearts changed?  In short, are we living such that salvation is made visible in us, just as Jesus made God’s salvation visible and real to a hurting world?  

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