Thursday, December 11, 2008

mighty God (a sermon)

Following is the text of a sermon I gave last Saturday at Oasis Madrid's service, in which Jesus and his followers are described as the new Ark of the Covenant. I hope it helps you in some way. --Troy

Mighty God
a sermon by Troy Cady

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

These words, written by Isaiah the prophet, sprang forth in the midst of an epic story. To grasp the dramatic power of these words, we need to look at them in the context of the larger story.

Centuries before Isaiah lived, God gave a man named Abram a new name: Abraham. The name means “father of many.” In giving Abraham this new name, God indicated his desire to bless all humanity. God promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation. He promised Abraham that he would grant him a spacious land and a people as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In time, those promises were fulfilled. Abraham became the father of Isaac and Isaac became the father of Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons and at one point he wrestled with God and was renamed Isra-el. The name literally means “wrestles with God”. I mention this because the history of Israel is really a history that represents a universal and timeless conflict: it is a story in which God’s children, whether Jewish or Gentile, wrestle with their loving Father.

The text in Isaiah tells us that God remains true to his word, however, so in keeping with his love, God has continued to offer the blessings of his rule and reign to his people. “The government will be on his shoulders.” To make this possible, God rescued the Israelites with a mighty hand while they were slaves in Egypt.

In the midst of this deliverance, God led the Israelites away from Egypt, through the desert, back to their promised land with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the pillar moved, the people moved and when the pillar remained in one place, the people remained.

This was fine, but God, as a consuming fire, was unapproachable. Because God wanted to dwell in the midst of his people, he instructed Moses to build a tabernacle. The tabernacle was a Tent of Meeting. It was placed in the center of the camp so that, no matter where you were in the camp, you would be reminded of God’s dwelling presence among his people.

Within this Tent of Meeting, God chose to dwell in a very special way in a room called the Holy of Holies. Here, the high priest, as a representative of the people of Israel, could commune with God on behalf of the people and make atonement for sin, asking God’s forgiveness. Within the Holy of Holies, God chose to locate his presence in an ark called the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was something like a covered chest of wood, overlaid with gold. Overshadowing the cover of the ark were two angels facing each other with their wings outstretched, touching each other. It is said that the wings formed a throne upon which the presence of God could sit while the cover of the ark served as God’s footstool. This image of God sitting on his throne in the midst of his people suggested authority, power, and dominion. This demonstrated that God desired to be the ruler of his people so that they could know him, love him and follow him always.

Now, because the Holy of Holies was the place where forgiveness for sin was obtained, this throne upon which God sat was called the Mercy Seat. God, as ruler and king, was indeed powerful; respect, worship, and humility were required to come into his presence. But whenever God’s people turned to him, they would also be assured of his mercy and forgiveness.

In the Ark of the Covenant, then, could be found the perfect mixture of love and justice, mercy and power, grace and holiness. The Ark of the Covenant ensured that the people of Israel would be God’s and God would be theirs.

Within the ark were placed three significant things to remind the Israelites of God’s mercy and power.

The first item was a jar of manna. Manna was a type of special bread that God provided while the Israelites lived in the desert, before they entered the Promised Land. It was such a special kind of bread that the Israelites, in fact, didn’t know what to call it, so they called it, literally, “What-is-it?” That’s what the word “manna” means. Manna showed the Israelites that God would take care of his people no matter what. By placing a jar of manna in the ark, the Israelites would be reminded that God himself would be their bread from heaven.

The second item placed in the ark was a staff that belonged to Aaron, Moses’ brother and high priest of Israel. Aaron’s staff was unique because of a dispute the Israelites had at one point regarding who would represent the people before God. So, God instructed Moses to collect a staff from each head of the tribes of Israel, twelve staffs in all. God told Moses to place the staffs in front of the ark; then, God would signify who would continue to serve as a representative of the people before his Mercy Seat. God told Moses he would cause one of the staffs to sprout buds and that would be the sign of his chosen servant. Aaron’s staff budded and that put an end to the dispute. It was now clear who God’s chosen servant would be. In time, this budding staff served to remind the Israelites that God could produce life from something that is dead. What’s more, the person that represented life coming from death would serve as head of God’s people. Placing the budding staff in the ark, reminded the Israelites of these things.

The third item placed in the ark was the Ten Commandments. God called Moses to be the leader of his people Israel. When God led Israel out of Egypt, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses recorded the very words God spoke to him on two tablets so that the people would always be reminded how God wanted them to live. The Ten Commandments were special to the Jewish people for many reasons, but one reason in particular stood out as most important: by having the Ten Commandments in their midst, the Israelites had the very word of God living among them. God’s word was of utmost importance to them because through his word the Israelites could relate to God since no human could ever see God face to face and live.

So, the Ark of the Covenant became the focal point for the Jewish people. God’s very presence dwelt there. They could meet with God there and they could receive atonement through the Mercy Seat. They would be reminded that God himself would always provide for them through the sign of the manna, and that God could do the impossible by bringing life out of death. Also, they would have immediate access to the very word of God, something that no other nation on earth enjoyed.

It is no surprise then, that later David’s son Solomon would build God a permanent dwelling place by building a temple in Jerusalem. Of course, the temple also contained a room called the Holy of Holies since it was patterned after the tabernacle. And, of course, the ark was placed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple.

But then, many years later, the Israelites were taken captive by the Babylonians. Solomon’s temple was destroyed and, more importantly, the ark was lost. (To this day no one knows where the ark is—except Indiana Jones, perhaps).

While the Israelites were exiled in Babylon, however, God spoke to his people through his prophets. One of those prophets was Isaiah. It was Isaiah that recorded the words we read earlier and which are often read at Christmastime all over the world.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

This text should be read in light of the fact that the Israelites no longer had the ark. They had lost their land, the right to rule themselves, and the temple was no more. What’s ironic here is that nowhere in Isaiah’s text is there mention that God will establish his rule and reign again through a recovery of the ark. Instead, Isaiah says God will send a special person to rule and his presence will dwell with his people through this special person. In other words, the ark (through which God dwelt and reigned with his people in the past) will be replaced by a child, a son, who will govern his people.

Notice that the child will accomplish what once the ark provided: prior to the exile, God was a wonderful counselor through the Ten Commandments placed in the ark, and God showed that he is indeed the Mighty One as he demonstrated the power of life over death in the budding staff. By means of the ark God also reminded the Israelites that he is a loving Father, providing for his children like a Father would do by sending manna. Finally, it was through the ark that God was a ruler that granted mercy, a Prince of Peace (since reconciliation with God was obtained at the Mercy Seat).

But now, Isaiah says, all that will change. God himself will dwell among his people as one of us, as a person, not merely by means of a wooden box. God’s rule and reign will now come through this special child who will be the new Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. The Israelites called this child the Messiah. He would be “The Anointed One”, the One through whom God would govern the hearts of men and women.

The child spoken of here by Isaiah is Jesus. He is the new ark. Just as it was through the ark that God dwelled among his people so it would be through Jesus that God would dwell with his people. Just as in the ark God provided mercy and forgiveness, so Jesus would grant us God’s grace. Just as the ark contained the bread from heaven, so in Jesus we partake of the bread of heaven. Like the Israelites we may even say of the kind of bread Jesus gives us, “What is it?” Jesus is our new manna, for we scarcely understand the mystery of how Jesus’ body can be our bread. In either case, this new bread provides nourishment for our souls and it comes from God’s hand (and God’s hand alone). And just as the ark contained a sign that life can spring from death with the power of God at work, so in Jesus, our Messiah, God’s Chosen Servant, life springs from death. Finally, just as in the Ten Commandments the ark bore the very word of God, enabling everyone to know God through his word, so Jesus is the very Word of God embodied. Through faith in our new ark, Jesus, we can know first-hand the very Word of God and have that very Word indwell us.

Just as the perfect mixture of love and justice could be found in the ark so the Messiah embodied the perfect mixture of mercy and power. Jesus is the new Mercy Seat, the one in whom we may rest. As we find our rest in him, he grants us Mercy and carries us into the very presence of the Father himself where we become heirs with the King that sits on his merciful throne. Just as the ark demonstrated the perfect mixture of strength and compassion, so God, in becoming Man, showed that nothing is too difficult for him to accomplish. Through his act of power he showed us mercy (for he displayed his power in coming to us because we had no power to come to him).

Notice that God’s advent to us in the person of Jesus was an act of power (a miracle!) but in the birth of Christ, God’s power assumes a gentle expression. When we say with Isaiah that his name shall be called “Mighty God” we must also remind ourselves that Christmas tells us God’s power comes packaged as mercy. God’s power may be the means, but God’s mercy is the end. Let that sink in: God exercises his power for the purpose of showing us mercy.

And if you doubt this, remember: This is how God has always dealt with us, for even as far back as the Ark of the Covenant we see this! It is true that the ark was a vehicle of power but let us remind ourselves of the substance of that power: God’s power consists of mercy, provision, resurrection and words of life (for that is what we find over and in the ark). The ark, as pre-figuring Jesus’ ministry, reminds us that, in sending his Son (a powerful act!), the Father intended to show us mercy, to provide for us, to make resurrection possible and to have his Word of Life living in our hearts. So, I say it again: Mercy is the substance of God’s power. We call Jesus our “Mighty God” because he is merciful, not in spite of his mercy.

This is true because without his mercy we could not know him, but without his power he could not show us mercy. In the ark, in the birth of Christ, and in this text of Isaiah’s, we see, therefore, that God is both strong and loving. Without his strength, his love is impotent, but without his love, his strength is devoid of comfort. In the birth of Christ, God’s power and mercy are perfectly and inseparably united.

That said, I’d like to get personal now. The men and women that embrace the true spirit of Christmas, therefore, are those men and women that use what means they have to minister mercy to others. The fact is: each and every one of us have been given a certain measure of power by God. This is because, in creating us in his image, God imbued us with the dignity of being Causes. In other words, each and every one of us can make a difference in this world, whether the difference is big or small; we can make a difference, because we have been given the dignity of being Causes. And, through the birth and life of our Lord Jesus, God, the Mighty God, shows us how we are to go about using this dignity, this mighty power, to minister mercy to others.

With the spirit of Jesus dwelling in us by faith we now have the capacity to carry bread, resurrection and God’s words of life to those who need to know God is not absent, he is very much present. If people around us are saying, “There is no God” it is because they fail to see the merciful power of God at work in and through us, for now it is through you and me that God wishes to display the power of his mercy.

The birth of Christ is not some cute little event that happened merely long ago. The might of God is now displayed as the Spirit of Christ lives in our hearts by faith and as we live in accordance with that spirit in the present. Christmas happens in the present and the might of Jesus’ mercy is reborn through us to a world that counts him a man dead and gone for ages hence. Living in the Christmas spirit, then, amounts to so much more than merely reminiscing and feeling nostalgic as we watch our Christmas movies or send our Christmas cards with quaint, tame scenes of lily-white infants, fair-complexioned virgins, and quiet, clean animals. Those versions of Christmas are mythical, and to the extent that they are accurate, they are merely trapped in the cell of history. The real Christmas is so powerful, the real Messiah so Mighty, it can never be contained in a lithograph or a bit of film, and it certainly can never be detained as a mere dim memory of some fuzzy historic event. No, the real Messiah is so mighty he spills into our present as we receive God’s mercy and hand out God’s mercy to others.

To join with the spirit of Isaiah’s text, therefore, a conscious choice of the will is required of us. Will we let God rule in our hearts? Will we let the government rest on the Messiah’s shoulders? Even as his shoulders bore the cross, will we let his choice to forgive be our choice to forgive? Are you in need of mercy and forgiveness? Yes, we all are, myself included, and until we see that we will never be able to receive God’s mercy. Experience the very power of God to cleanse you as you reach out, pleading with him to forgive you for sins you have committed even this very week. Ask Jesus to be your Mercy Seat and find out for yourself that God is Mighty to save.

Then, having received God’s forgiveness, extend that forgiveness to someone else, even this week. God, in granting you power by creating you in his image, asks you to exercise that power in the same way he exercises his power: for the purpose of showing mercy. Someone may have hurt you this week by something they said or did. Forgive that person and discover that there is no greater power than the power of forgiveness. Show the world that the Might of God is displayed as mercy.

Then, find other ways to live in the spirit of the Mighty God. Display his mercy through helping provide for others; display his powerful mercy through participating in his work of resurrecting that which is currently dead; finally, display his powerful mercy through spreading his word of life and always, always, hold that word near and dear to your heart this season. Talk about it when you sit and when you rise. Think about it when you awake and when you retire. Speak of it with young and old alike, for to let the word of life dwell among you is to welcome the advent of Christ and bring to completion what God has desired since the beginning of time.

Let us live this week in the might of his mercy. He is, indeed, our Mighty God for he is Mighty to save.

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