I wore a tuxedo to church.

I really did.  Just a few days ago.

It was one of those late at night ideas when I was thinking about how to communicate the truth of what God has done for us.  In a way that is visible.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I have been preaching out of passages in the prophet Isaiah for a few weeks now.  This past week, it was Isaiah 61:1-11.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim liberty to the captives…
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
      2     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor   (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this at the beginning of his ministry (see Luke 4).  Implicit in this is that God’s Spirit is empowering him.  God has called him to these tasks.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus lived as one living for something else…rather, someone else.

As Christians, our story starts and ends with Jesus.  We learn from watching Him live out that mission—and our mission is shaped by His.  We are to be those that bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, set free those bound in prison, and proclaim God’s grace to all who will listen.  His way of being—slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in forgiveness—his ways become our ways. Jesus ended the reading in the synagogue right there.  But the passage goes on:

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3  to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
   the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
   that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4  They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.  (Isaiah 61:2-4)

This is where the tuxedo comes in.  A transformation takes place:  God changes their clothing from one of mourning to celebration.  Over a garment of despair, a garment of praise.

When I wore my tux to church that day, it was amazing the reactions I got.  I saw people whispering amongst themselves, and they were all trying to guess where I was going after church.  “Must be a wedding,” some of them told me.  One joked that I must not have had anything else clean to wear.

But then here is this abrupt shift of metaphor from the outfitting for a wedding to the tending of a garden.  From the haberdashery to the arboretum.

The changing of clothing from despair to praise is for a purpose:  So that they might be oaks. Oaks not for themselves.  A planting for the display of God’s splendor.  I continue to marvel at the fact that God chooses to make Himself known through His people.

I talked to our junior high group a couple of weeks ago about God being just.  And I shared with them a talk I heard by Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission.  Haugen said, “God’s only plan for showing the world that He is a just God, God’s only plan for this…is us!”

In a similar fashion, I see here that God’s plan for showing the world what kind of God He is…is us!  We are a planting for God’s glory.

Why God’s glory?  Is God an egomaniac, seeking words of affirmation like an insecure teenager going to their first dance?

God’s glory is seen in a human being fully alive,  said the church father Irenaeus.  Perhaps translated more properly:  “Life in a human is the glory of God; the life of a human is the vision of God.” [cited here]

And the vision of God we see is a being that is with and for us.  He created us in His image.  He became one of us in Jesus Christ; willing to sacrifice Himself for our salvation.  Glory of God is for another.

Another reason why God’s glory is worth pursuing:  Because the glory of human beings is fleeting.  It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.  When we see a human being seeking their own glory, don’t we reel back at that display?

But the glory of God is with us, and for us.*

So we shall be glad to be a planting for God’s glory.

God has planted us as a church on a particular corner in a particular city.  As a group of people.  Not just a building, but a people.

There was a question that was asked amongst us last week:  “When people drive by this church, what do they think of?  How are we known in this community?”  People first get to know us by things that we do.  Events we hold for the community.  They are open doors to greet and welcome people into our midst.  But this passage is a challenge for us to ask ourselves, “What are we displaying?”

We are to be a display of God’s glory and splendor.  Somehow, in the way that we live, the way that we speak, what we do—is supposed to be for the praise of God—people should see the character and heart of God in us.

And, we become the rebuilders and restorers.  Of beauty.  Of fruitful and fair commerce.  We become those that engage in righteous practices in law and government.  We create art and culture that is honoring to God and others.  We become teachers that treat each person with dignity as they are made in the image of God.

Isaiah has more to say…

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6  but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
   you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7  Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
   therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
   I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9  Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
   all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.  (Isaiah 61:5-9)

We will be called priests and ministers.  That does not mean that all of us will do the things that we think ministers do.  That is, work one day a week and talk about the Bible.

Instead, the image is that our way of living will be like a clothing—that when we are seen in the world, people will say, “They represent God.”

Tucked into this is a message of good news:  Instead of shame and dishonor, God will bless.  Shame can traumatize all of us.  Most of us hear this promise of God–that we shall represent Him–and say in our minds, “Not me.  I couldn’t possibly be someone who represents God.  Look at what I’ve done.  Look at what I’m still doing.”

Listen:  the Bible is NOT full of stories of men and women who completely overcame their brokenness and THEN God used them.  It is full of stories that God showed His power and might through their brokenness, and in spite of their brokenness.

God will make the wrong things right.  He hates robbery and wrong, He loves justice. And, this passage seems to be telling us–we will be the children of God that help enact that justice.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
   for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
   as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11     For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
   so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.             (Isaiah 61:10-11)

At our church, we’ve been using this imagery of a tree to talk about our relationship with God.  Seed, sapling, providing shade for others, and then a sower.  The sapling stage of our life is when the seed of faith has broken through the soil, but our relationship is still in need of certain things to help us grow strong.  In those sapling stages of our life:  God tenderly begins to tell us this:  We begin to discover that our life with God isn’t just for our own happiness.  There is pruning that takes place that isn’t pleasant.  But in the end, we emerge a stronger tree—a more righteous oak.

In this sapling stage we begin to understand this:  that while God is for us, life isn’t about us.  We begin to understand that our lives can be a song of praise to God.

In this passage is this idea of us all needing to surround ourselves with praise.   “I will rejoice…my soul shall exult…praise shall sprout up before all nations.”

Why praise?  When we call upon the name of God, the promises of God, something happens within us.  There are scores of medical studies that show that having a positive attitude, positive thoughts, can help immensely in the battle against disease, illness, even cancer.  Do we think that singing praise to God would have the same effect?

Beyond those positive effects, we praise because God is worthy of it.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about the conditions that are needed for us all when we are at the early stages of our faith—this sapling stage of faith.

  • We need the water of community.
  • We need to be deeply rooted, planted straight, strong, level.
  • We need to rest and trust in God’s grace in times of weakness.
  • We need the word of God, to be reminded of His promises to us.
  • We need praise.

In the end, this beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 tells us this:  We get new clothes.  A new identity.  A new life.

God gets a song.  (Sounds like a bad deal for God doesn’t it?)  We get a new identity, a completely transformed life—God gets a song?  But that song is our life, fully lived out for Him.

We need to worship.  We need to be reminded that seeking our own glory leads to emptiness, seeking God’s glory leads to abundance.

When we take all of the main parts of Isaiah 61, we have the fullness of the gospel message.

  • Someone once came, preaching good news to the poor, free those in prison. God did those things in the person of Jesus.
  • When we follow Him, listen to His Words—we are changed.  Changed for a purpose.  We become rebuilders and restorers.
  • People will see God because of us.  Not only because of how we talk, but how we live, and what we do, and how we do it.
  • So we gather in rejoicing in praise.  We need this rejoicing and praise.  And every nation, every race, every language will see justice and God’s glory.

It wouldn’t be practical to wear tuxedos and gowns every day.  After a while, people would stop paying attention anyway.  But I pray our lives would reflect the love, peace, mercy, justice and grace of God.  And we would stand like oaks of righteousness, displaying God’s splendor to the world.

 

*I am grateful to Scot McKnight and his book, “One.Life:  Jesus Calls, We Follow” for this insight about God being with and for us.
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When the Trees Go To…Worship?

ent

Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.

 

Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”

 

What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 

 

*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of Discipleship.org.