>(Note: This is a sermon series focused on misconceptions of Jesus in our culture where Jesus is all around us. I’m using Jared Wilson’s book, Your Jesus is Too Safe as a springboard into the series and will follow along with some of his themes. For those of you who haven’t read Wilson’s stuff, I encourage you to at least check out his blog, The Gospel-Driven Church. This sermon functioned as the introduction to the series, trying to convey the notion that it can be hard to find who Jesus is in our culture.)
Text: Isaiah 40:3-5, 9 & Matthew 5:17-20
Title: “Jesus the Promise”
How many people here today golf? I know there are some who still find time to golf pretty regularly during the summer months up here even though Alaska isn’t perceived as a golfing destination for many.
I golfed once, back in college, with a buddy of mine. I remember on the first hole, missing the first shot completely…you know after a swing that I was sure was going to hit the ball a country mile. So, that was a “mulligan” a “do-over.” We pretended it just didn’t happen. I was warming up. It didn’t count. And, with three more swings I managed to get the ball into the whole. It was a par 3. I thought I was God’s gift to golf. I was on a roll.
It went downhill from there. It wasn’t pretty. I think when all was said and done, even with some mulligans thrown in, I shot a 72 for the first 9 holes. That, was my golfing experience. I haven’t tried it again.
Now, I don’t think Jesus was much of a golfer, but I do think, as we talk about the misconceptions and incomplete pictures of Jesus that many of us have…I do think that some persons have an image of a “Mulligan Jesus” a “DO-OVER Jesus.” That God had given the law and the prophets and a couple thousand years of history to his chosen people and they still weren’t getting it. It was just one big swing and a miss. And so, God, looking down from heaven says to his angels, “I think I’ll take a mulligan.” Let’s have a whole do-over here. I’m going to send them JESUS.
And, as if all that other stuff never happened, in comes Jesus, to save the day and it’s a HOLE IN ONE.
While it is true that, as Christians, we read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus…meaning, we can’t help but use the words in red, what Jesus said, and what Jesus did as the tool for interpreting the Old Testament passage. While that’s true, Jesus is not a whole new story in the salvation story of our God, but a continuation of the story that’s been told throughout eternity. It’s not like, since Jesus came along that the whole Old Testament doesn’t matter. That’s part of the reason why there’s been a movement to call the Old Testament “The First Testament” or “The Hebrew Bible.” The Old Testament matters, and, when we pay attention we can see that it’s full of testimony about and for Jesus.
Take, for instance, the passage that we read from Isaiah 40 just a bit ago:
A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill be made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
The people of Israel had passed through the waters during the Exile from Egypt a long time before Isaiah. But still, at this point, there was the understanding that God had something more in store for them…that God had promised to come back and make things right…all things right with his people.
It had been a long time. But a promise is a promise is a promise and the people of Israel waited.
This is where I think the illustration from the Children’s Time comes in handy…that of a child being tucked in and the parent promising to come and check on them. In our household, it’s in “eight minutes…with the kids not having much understanding of just how long that is. But they know that we’ve promised to check on them and they can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that we’ll come back.
Israel, though its history, knows that God will come. He promised. And they waited.
During this waiting period a lot of folks came out of the desert claiming to be the promised Messiah. And many of them came with similar credentials. They hoped that God would intervene and make things right. They were upset at the oppression of present overlords, the Romans. They’d go out to the wilderness, get a bunch of followers, and then hatch a scheme to overthrow the government by might.
It didn’t work out too well for most of them. Mostly death.
But things changed when this one man, John, the cousin of Jesus came along. We just heard some of his story leading up to Christmas. This is how Jared Wilson, whose book Your Jesus is Too Safe, which I’m using as a springboard for this sermon series describes him:
Cousin John ventured into the Jordan River Valley, but instead of starting a commune, instead of seeking out angry dudes with swords, who wanted to conspire and bust some Roman heads, he put on his camel-fur galoshes, stood in the river and began receiving people who shared his expectation. Cousin John was the perfect man for this perfect time, because he was a guy who really got into the wilderness. This is a guy wearing animal skins and eating crickets and wild honey, who made the Crocodile Hunter look like Mister Rogers. (20-21)
And, with his baptizing of people, it was kind of like the Exodus was being reenacted all over again. The stories of the prophets said that God would come…he PROMISED. With John, he said the PROMISE WAS COMING NOW.
You’ll remember John’s words from the gospel of Matthew — “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?
And so, the Promise comes. The long-awaited Promise, the Messiah, comes and breaks into the world. The story of God continues.
But as we think about the promise of God coming to us in Jesus, we need to be very aware of why everyone didn’t just jump on Jesus’ bandwagon. See, as I had stated, there had been a lot of anticipation for a military uprising that would come with God’s Messiah. As we read a lot of the prophets, there was an understanding that not only had God promised to come and make things right but that he’d flex some divine muscle as he did this. Swords. Clubs. Armies. Tactical plans. That was part of the package.
But we know that wasn’t the case with Jesus. Our Gospels go out of their way to show his humble and peaceful side. He comes as a baby in a manger. He preaches about turning the other cheek. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem involves a donkey ride and not a big white stallion.
And if the Jews had assumed they would gather with their Messiah and take over the land and the rivers and the trade and the government and the banks and sit all high and mighty in places of power…it had to be more than a little disheartening to find out that ALL they were getting out of the deal was Jesus.
But the Promise wasn’t going to be fulfilled with the empty things of this world, but with God himself. It’s not what people wanted.
Jesus showed up and said that the kingdom of God was here now, coming and breaking into history. And he said the kingdom was coming by, in, and through him. This was a hard pill to swallow—then and now. Let’s be frank: if you find the message of Jesus easy to digest, you’d better check the label on the box. You may be consuming a diluted version of Christianity. The message of Jesus—that he himself is life and you can’t get it anywhere else, least of all in yourself—is the hardest message we could ever hear, because it goes completely against our perceptions and conceptions, our prejudices and our opinions. It goes radically against the bent of our souls.
You know that we are a people who like our stuff…we like our things…we like our privilege…we like our power. If you had hoped, like Israel, for hundreds of years for stuff and things and privilege and power and then found out you were getting a poor Carpenter from a nondescript Judean town, what would you think?
But as different as this Promise was, we need to remember that it’s not a do-over, a mulligan…that Jesus is very closely connected to what came before.
Many persons, as they look at Jesus will say, in the Old Testament we had the Law and that’s how God tried to shape and be in relation to his people. But in the New Testament we have Jesus who comes and offers grace. Law/Old Testament/Bad. Grace/New Testament/Good.
But that misses the fact that the Law was, all along pointing to Jesus. It was all about being in relationship with our God. And to claim “Law/Bad…Grace/Good” misses even what Jesus says about the law:
“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20).
As Christians, we look back at the Law and we can say that they definitely show us that we are a sinful people…we mess up…we’re broken…we have some trouble with obedience…ad probably with authority. And we look to Jesus as the one who fixes that…fixes us.
And again, it doesn’t happen the way we might like it to…at least not if we were writing the story. There is sin and disobedience. And it involves the spilling of some blood, which is very much in line with the understanding of the Hebrew people. And, if we’re going to follow him it even involves taking up our own crosses to follow him, some self-sacrifice. Sacrifice…again…very much in line with the Hebrew people.
So, we can’t look at Jesus as some great “PLAN B” from God because “PLAN A” was an utter failure. Jesus comes to us as the fulfillment of the promises of God…in person and he connects us with all that has come before. He connects us to those stories. He connects us to the love of God and the call to faithfulness of the prophets and even to the hope that God will create for us a world that is free from pain and abuse and hunger and awkwardness and cranky kids and depression and flat feet and everything.
The story continues.
The Promise is ours.
He has come.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.