How Vast is God's Domain
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, December 24, 2017, 4th Sunday of Advent
This morning I’m going to talk about recycling. It’s important that we take care of our environment. It’s wise—or to put it in churchly terms—it’s good stewardship to reuse things that still have use to them.
This morning, Christians around the world are recycling these familiar words from the prophet Isaiah. We’re spent the last three weeks hearing about hopes that are shattered, hearing about a nation that is not only feeling forgotten by God, but a nation that is not even sure they can again feel connected to their god since their holy city, and their holiest places, has been destroyed in war.
Last week was the Joy Sunday when we sneaked a little joy into the season of anticipation that Advent is. It is good to be reminded what we are waiting for—and to look ahead with hope to the joy that we will one day experience.
Isaiah, the prophet spoke words that Christians have drawn hope and inspiration from for 2,000 years—but his words were not originally for Christians. In fact he spoke these words between 700 and 800 years before Jesus was born.
Just before the soaring, hope-filled passage that Nick read are these words.
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.
In the former time he brought into contempt…but in a latter time he will make glorious
…the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations…
Then we hear “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…” These are the words that marked the coronation of the King Hezekiah. This is the start of a day of rebirth for the Israelites. All those images of blood-filled clothing and the boots of warriors and the harsh oppression of their conquerors…that’s all gone. A new, strong King is giving the people a new beginning. Hezekiah was described this way,
“He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that there were none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who came before him.” (II Kings 18:5)
This mighty and great king was given effusive titles:
Wonderful. Counselor Mighty God Everlasting Father Prince of Peace
Isaiah, the prophet to the royal family gave these titles to Hezekiah.
How would it feel to have a king called “Prince of Peace” after being humiliated in battle?
How would it feel to have a king called “Mighty God” after you have believed that God was not there for you in a foreign land?
One image that appears regularly in what we call the Old Testament is that the coronation of a new king begins a day of rebirth. Or to put it another way the king has been adopted as the Son of God, the instrument through whom God would work.
The expectations are very high. Confidence is very high. This new king will establish, rule, and uphold justice and righteousness from this time forward and forever more.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The people who walked in darkness have not been forgotten! They have been delivered! A new, just, godly king has come at last.
The stakes are high. When we sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years” we’re talking about the awesome responsibility that the king is taking on at his coronation.
And I have to say, that the image of a king, even a righteous, just, and mighty king, is not something I can relate to as an American. We fought a revolution to get out from under British royalty. We built into our constitution that government would never grant royal titles.
I’ve been reading Hamilton for the past four weeks. I had to return it to the library last week and I was only about 1/3 through with it! It’s a long book, and one that gives the reader a sense of what our nation was like as it began to pull itself together and find a structure for the government that did not simply re-establish the system that was not democratic, the system that sparked the revolution.
One of the things that the Founders struggled with was what to call the new leader of the executive branch of the government? It was clear that the only leader around whom the nation could unite was the general who led the battle for independence, George Washington, but what should they call the office that he would occupy? And how should he be addressed?
These questions were of central importance. Titles, protocol matter. They shape the way people think. Washington could have taken the highest office, whatever it would have been called, by acclimation. But who would succeed someone who came into power that way? What process would maintain the stability and security of the government? No, the first president was elected, and elections have even been held in time of war, ever since.
Today, we’re used to saying “Mr. President” and “President Trump.” But other titles were considered. One title that was suggested by John Adams was “His Highness, the President of the United States of America & Protector of their Liberties.” That’s a lot to put on a business card, don’t you think. And to my modern, American ears it sounds like titles that are still used for British royalty: Which was really all they had to build on when our nation was founded. It was sort of a non-event when the just established House of Representatives voted to call him, “George Washington, President of the United States.” The Senate went along—even though many of them preferred a lenghthier title.
It’s not just the prophet who is using royal language, whoever wrote to Titus also was part of a culture that had emperors, who had very special status.
The reading starts: for the grace of God appeared bringing salvation to all. “Salvation” is one of the things that emperors are supposed to provide for their people, security, protection…but there’s a little bit more, later in the reading it says, “the manifestation,” again, a word for how the emperor appears and governs…but this time the royal term comes with a twist, what is manifest is not the power and might of a human emperor…what is manifest is the “glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us…and purify for himself a people who are zealous to do good deeds.”
What this writer did is subtle, but important. First he tells us that the baby whose birth we will celebrate later today, and throughout the Season of Christmas is born, is present in the world here and now…and he also points to the reality that we see all around us. The reign of God on earth began with this extraordinary thing that Christians believe, that God came into the world as a human baby! That’s wild, but even more significant, we’re waiting for that promised peace to be completed on earth. He tells us that the story of Jesus Christ is our story, not a story that we own, but a story of who we are our personal story. We sing, “cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” Make room for Jesus to enter your life and your heart. Make room. And when you do, here are your marching orders to follow Christ. You’ve already received grace from our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” now live that grace, embody that grace share that grace, spread that grace. Show hospitality to strangers, follow the living Christ with humility, be zealous to do good deeds. I don’t think I’ve used that word “zealous” yet this year. It’s a churchy sounding word to my ears, so here are some other ways to think and live this advice from scripture:
Be passionate to do good deeds;
Be committed to do good deeds;
Be dedicated to do good deeds;
Be enthusiastic to do good deeds; and
Be eager to do good deeds.
Those are all helpful ways for each of us to imagine how we live the faith that came into the world more than 2,000 years ago in a humble home in a small town.
And as I wrote each of those words, I remembered what is the best way I can think of that this church lives those words as expressions of faith. I think of the smiles and joy of the guests and the crew who put on the Community Breakfast each month…and next month we’ll be doing that twice each month. These words to Titus should inspire and guide all people who seek to follow Jesus.
One last thought, did you notice in our prayer of confession we asked God to “revive our love” in God? We can all use a refresher course, a pep talk as we live our lives. Work to revive your ability not just to love God, but to accept the powerful, gracious accepting love that God sends into the world every day. All the time. Amen.