Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“Too Small A Thing”

Isaiah 49:1-7[1]

The 1995 classic film Braveheart is a stirring tale of courage. It is set in the late 13th century, when the English King Edward I attempted to claim lordship over Scotland. In fact, it was a time when Scotland’s nobles fought with each other over divided loyalties. In the film, William Wallace leads a rebellion against the English King. But the Scottish lords are too wrapped up in their own selfish interests to get behind it. At one point, he attempts to rally the Scottish lords to his cause, and he says, “There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.”

What is the purpose of privilege? That is a question the Jewish people were dealing with in the days of the prophet Isaiah. They had a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a nation chosen and blessed by God. But as Isaiah’s contemporaries Amos and Micah also make clear, the Jewish people had turned that blessing into a privilege and they thought it would spare them from all harm, even from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It seems clear that there were many prophets, priests and teachers in Israel who reassured the people that the impending doom Isaiah warned them about would never fall on them because they were God’s “chosen people.”

Besides exposing the folly of that kind of thinking,[2] Isaiah also reminded them that the purpose of their calling in the first place was not simply their own privilege and prosperity, but so that they might be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.[3] It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees, and God called him to leave for a place “to be determined at a later date”! The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).[4]

Somewhere along the way, however, that outlook got lost. But the Jewish people didn’t have a corner on that market. The church throughout the ages has made the very same mistake. Like the Jewish people of old, Kings and popes and preachers of all kinds have mistaken God’s blessing for their privilege.

I fear this is the greatest challenge the church faces today. Not just this church, but churches of all sizes and stripes and flavors in our society. What seems to be happening in our society as a whole is that we have lived with some 50 years of relatively unbroken prosperity. And the more money we have the more stuff we get. And the more stuff we have, the more stuff we think we need, so we get even more! Our whole culture has become one big festival of giving ourselves whatever our hearts desire, of doing whatever we want to find “fulfillment,” with no serious regard for anybody else!

And unfortunately, I fear that mindset is infiltrating the church. More and more churches are succumbing to the temptation to make the Christian faith one big self-help movement. Even worse, some have turned Jesus into the great “genie” in the sky who gives us all the wishes our hearts desire if we just have enough “faith.” Even more traditional churches are full of people who come to church to be “fed,” or to get a religious “high,” or simply to show off!

But the God whom Isaiah called his people to worship is “the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28), the one who “sits above the circle of the earth” and “stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (40:22). The God who called them and us to serve as light to the world is the who said, “I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host” (Isaiah 45:12). Do we really believe that such a God is concerned about whether I get my next toy, or you get a newer car, or anyone else gets to move up the career ladder to a bigger paycheck?[5] As Isaiah said so long ago, that’s “too small a thing” for the God who is in the process of “making everything new.”

When we walk down that path, we not only make our God too small, we abandon the very lifeblood of the church—which is the same task as the servant Isaiah spoke of so long ago. Like God’s “servant” we are called to bring saving justice to those who have been written off—the life-giving justice of God’s kingdom. It’s a justice that says to the hungry “here’s food,” and to the stranger, “you’re welcome here.” The point of it all is not to make our wishes and dreams come true, but to “transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when He created it.”[6] Anything less than that is “too small a thing” for the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ who is working through the Spirit of life to make all things new! And it’s “too small a thing” for us as well.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/20/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Amos 3:2 says it is precisely because they were God’s chosen people that they would be disciplined for their sins!

[3] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 36-41.

[4] Bauckham, 28-36.

[5] Cf. J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, 40, 57, 84.

[6] Harold Kushner, To Life!; accessed at practices/practices.php?id=30&g=1; cf. Bauckham, Bible and Mission, 34

[7] Cf. Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 131; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 327-39; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 76-85.

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