July 14, 2002
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


"The Purposes of God"
Isaiah 55: 10-13

What is it you most want for your children?  [Give a moment for reflection]

Most of us would say something along the line of wanting our children to be happy, fulfilled human beings who are successful and responsible participants in our society. Many of us belong to a generation whose parent's standard response to a question like this was that they wanted their children to have it better than they did. Those of us who have parents who went through the Great Depression actually did do better than most of them did. (We may be living in a generation where the next generation may not do as well as the last generation.)

Apart from the obvious material sense in which we want our children to do well is the spiritual sense in which we hope that our children will love God and neighbor and live in peace.

When we try to get at the heart of the biblical message and express in basic terms what God's essential goal for our lives might be, we discover that Isaiah 55:12 says it well, "...you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace..." Joy and peace. That is the divine purpose for the children of God.

Now this is no shallow platitude. Joy and peace may sound like very simple things, but Isaiah speaks to a people who have lost the joy and peace meant for God's children. As is always the case in the biblical drama, the joy and peace of God are lost when God's people turn away from the source of joy and peace.

So - the divine goal Isaiah points to is restoration of perfect fellowship with God. It is this union that brings authentic joy and peace to living.  Jesus told his disciples in his last night with them in the Upper Room that all his teaching had a goal for their lives - namely, "...that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." [John 15:11] In that same evening he also said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." [John 14:27]

***

Okay - these are great goals. I doubt that any of us here would reject a goal of joy and peace for our lives. It is evident however, that affirming this goal is much easier than reaching the goal. I remember a young man who confided in me that he felt like an "impostor" in the church. "I come for my wife and kids," he said, "but all this talk of love and joy absolutely escapes me. If all these people are 'getting' this peace, love and joy business - then I'm a genuine fake."

Actually, his honesty and sense of dissonance between the faith in principle and faith in practice showed that he may have been more sensitive to the biblical message than some of his peers. He was not one of those folks who never gets the difference between what they hear and what they experience in the Christian life. His eyes didn't glaze over when he heard the message - rather the message confronted his inner experience.

Fortunately, we are able to point this young man to some very important company. His experience was not altogether unlike that of Moses, Jonah or even Simon Peter. Throughout the bible major characters have struggled with God's truth in tension with their experience. Moses wanted to give the people of God back to God on occasion, Jonah preferred to run away from God than to see God forgive the sins of some terrible people. Even such a great person as the "Chief of Apostles" once asked Jesus to leave him because he felt like such a terrible person and later wanted to absolutely disappear from the planet when Jesus looked him in the eye after the denial.

The perfect faith is rather like the perfect marriage, the perfect children or the perfect job. It doesn't exist!  At least not this side of God's Kingdom. The key to understanding how God's purposes are to come to some kind of fruition in our lives is to know that God's good purposes are mediated through the Word of God and are worked out in God's redemptive plan.  There are some important insights to this dynamic in the short passage from Isaiah which takes us beyond the normal patterns of contemporary thinking. A brief outline of the passage will help us to get a handle on how Isaiah shows us the purposes of God.

We will look at these four short verses as they speak to:

   1. The Purposes of God are firmly rooted in the natural order: Creator God [v.10]

   2. The purposes of God are firmly rooted in the word of God:  Incarnate God [v.11]

   3. The purposes of God are firmly rooted in the people of God:
       Redeemer God [v.12]

   4. The purpose of God is the wholeness of all creation and all persons:
       Sovereign God [v.13]

1. The Purposes of God are firmly rooted in the natural order: Creator God

"...as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater..." [v.10]

God's word is described as analogous to the way the natural order works. There is a rhythm and an order to the rain which waters the earth and brings about a harvest which then feeds the one who eats bread.

Not only is there a rhythm to the natural order, there is also a purpose to the rhythm of creation. Everything comes together in God's good order to bring about a harmony and wholeness in the natural order that includes union and harmony between God, creation and humankind. This is all one system of creation, creatures and the crown of creation - humankind created in the image of God.

Finding unity and harmony within ourselves is difficult enough, much less within the creation around us. We are fractured within and the world and creation are fractured without. Societies collide, creation increasingly is stressed by an adversarial relationship with those who dwell in it, and people today urgently search for meaning in fractured lives.

The beginning of understanding the purposes of God is to reconnect ourselves with the created order. Isaiah says that creation's rhythm gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater. We are involved in and nourished by God's created order.

We reconnect with creation when we spend time walking in the park, or taking in a starlit nighttime sky. I don't know about you, but if I do not get to spend some time in nature, I find myself stressed. A few days in the mountains, or walking sandy beaches is renewing. I am fed by creation in ways that go beyond the physical.

2. The purposes of God are firmly rooted in the word of God:  Incarnate God

"...so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." [v.11]

There is much more to the Christian faith than a creation religion. God does not leave us alone to flounder in a world run amuck. As the rain falls to the earth to bring about nourishment and growth in the natural order - so the Word of God will bring about God's good purposes for humanity.

The Word of God brings about the birth of all creation and will finally succeed in bringing about God's redemptive purpose for all of us. The Word becomes flesh and in Jesus Christ God moves to restore the unity and harmony that is at the heart of divine purpose.

And the whole thing is not in doubt. God's Word is not some kind of gamble, "...it shall accomplish that which I purpose..."   God's word brings about creation in the very beginning, it comes to teach and renew the people of God through the prophets, it comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word, and this word gives us new life as we receive it. "...I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life..." Jesus said in John 5:24.

When we have embraced the Incarnate Word, we live by that word and give evidence that we are authentic followers of Christ. "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples..." [John 8:31]

3. The purposes of God are firmly rooted in the people of God:
    Redeemer God

"For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." [v. 12]

Throughout the biblical drama, the highest purpose of God is that the People of God return to the relationship they were designed for. Creation is a wonderful gift and the universe is an awesome place - but the heart of God is given to the redemption of the People of God.

In spite of all the turmoil, trouble and tribulation God's people have brought upon themselves and in spite of the heartbreak God has endured with these people - God's purpose is still for the complete health (salvation) of humankind. "You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace," God promises through the prophetic word. Indeed all of creation will rejoice as the hills sing and the trees clap their hands because God's people are reunited with their Maker!

4. The purpose of God is the wholeness of all creation and all persons:
       Sovereign God

"Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off." [v.13]

Isaiah has the whole of creation celebrating the redemption of God's people. The thorn gives way to the cypress and the brier gives way to the myrtle. The joy of God's heart, reflected in creation is, "...an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off."

The Apostle Paul wrote of this dynamic in Romans 8:20-21:

"...the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

In other words, God's purposes shall be accomplished! The Word of God is testimony to the work of God and that work can not be defeated by the heartsickness of humankind or the forces of evil. God's purposes are God's promises and the foundation of security for our living.

Thanks be to God!


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The first thing that stands out in the texts as a whole is the close connection between what is going on in creation and what is going on in the plans of God.  The whole earth participates in the plan of redemption as and mountains sing, fields clap their hands and hills dress themselves with joy.  When God is present and the heart of the Lord is pleased, there is a harmony in creation which results in a joyful harvest of all that the earth should be.  And so it is between God and those who love the Lord.

A fruitful creation, responding to God's gracious care is analogous to a fruitful life which embraces the word of the Lord and flourishes as it was designed to do.  Matthew says it is the word of God bearing fruit a hundred fold in a life.  In Isaiah it is the people of God being led home in peace while the hills sing and the fields applaud.  The Psalmist speaks of a rich harvest -- both in the hearts of God's people and in the bounty of God's land.

One way these texts can speak to us is in the close connection between Creator, creation and the children of God.  Many have made the point that we no longer live in a pastoral setting -- yet the creation is as powerful a symbol today as it ever was.  Personally, I find myself growing a bit "bonkers" without regular, consistent time in creation.  It is renewing.   Take time to listen to the mountains sing, the rivers clap their hands and watch the fields dress themselves.  That "crabby" boss you work for won't bother you so much!

How does the Romans pericope fit into this?   At first glance, it would seem that Paul's discussion of life in the Spirit as opposed to life in the flesh has absolutely nothing to do with the other texts.   There is, however, a bit of a connection in that the work of the Spirit within a Christian's life brings about renewal in the same way God's word brings a harvest in Matt. and Isa. To walk "according to the Spirit" is the basis of the "fruitful" life.

Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23

Many popular presentations of this text focus on how it is that people need to listen to and embrace God's word lest they miss out on a spiritual harvest.  I've heard a lot of preaching on this parable that places responsibility on the one who hears.  "If you don't listen carefully, the devil will steal away the good word and if you are too worldly, the cares and concerns of the secular world will choke out the spiritual."  Jesus even says, "Let anyone with ears listen!"

This is another case where the intervening verses in the lectionary division of Matthew's pericope makes a big difference in how the message comes across.  Verses 10-17 provide the information that Jesus teaches in parables -- making the message even easier to understand -- in order to confirm the stubborn and resistant attitude of those who close their hearts and minds to God.   The closing verses of the text, then, are not so much, "Here's what you should do..." -- but, "here's what is going on."  It isn't, "Try harder and you will receive God's word and reap a harvest."   Instead it is, "You have received the gift of being able to receive the word and the harvest."  This is a great text to do some work on the very delicate balance of free will and predestination.  Between, "... to you it has been given..." [v.11] and "...they have shut their eyes..." [v.15] there is the tension of determination and decision.  Neither can be eliminated without doing damage to the substance of the text.

Myron Augsberger [Communicator's Commentary: Word, p. 171] chooses the "freedom to choose" dimension when he writes, "We keep on sowing the word, believing that the harvest will come; but recognizing the freedom of the hearer to be open and responsive to grace or on the other hand to resist the Spirit."

Eugene Boring, on the other hand [The New Interpreters Bible: Matthew, p.306] takes the wider view of Christ as the Sower and the Kingdom of God as sure, despite the obstacles.  The focus is not so much on individual choice and reaction to the word but in the certainty of the word's mission.  This is Isaiah's message... "My word will not return to me void..."

Isaiah 55:10-13

The essential "Good News" in this brief passage from Isaiah is -- "The victory is sure!"   I would use this in any situation where there is a need for encouragement in the midst of disappointment or disillusionment. Indeed, the message is written in a time when Israel's national being and identity was under duress.  The Good News here is, "Even the bad news is good news for God's people because God will bring about the victory of divine intentions."

In a sense, this is God's guarantee of victory in the face of evidence to the contrary!

Romans 8:1-11

This passage continues Paul's discussion from last week about how it is that he does not fully understand the struggle within himself between the spiritual and the sinful.  He concludes his wrestling with a kind of doxology.  "Thank God...  I am delivered through Christ."

Now, Paul continues with an encouragement to live "according to the Spirit" instead of "according to the flesh".  In spite of all the struggles, however, there is a sense of the joy of redemption because having chosen Christ, there is no longer any condemnation for us and there is the promise of eternal life through the power of the Spirit who lives within us.   In fact, it is the presence of the Spirit within us that assures us we belong to Christ.  Paul exhorts us to "set" our minds on that which already dwells within -- namely the Spirit of God.

This relationship of Spirit and our living represents the premise of the Christian life.

Psalm 65:1-13

This passage along with Isaiah tells me I must one day do a sermon with the theme: "Have you heard the mountains sing?  Have you watched a tree get dressed?"

After reading the Psalm and walking to the office this morning, I tried listening to  the world around me.   It was amazing!  Renewing!  And then there are the trees. We have several "Flowering Crabs" on our church property.  Last summer, most of them shriveled up dropped their leaves.  One of our members who is an expert on trees, told us that it might be related to the weather conditions last year.  We were waiting to see if this year would bring life or death.  Would there be a new burst of life or would there simply be the barren sticks and branches.

Wonder of wonders...   there is an absolutely wonderful display of new leaves -- new life!  And so in early spring I took a bit of time to observe and "watch the trees dress themselves..."


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 65:1-13)

Leader: All praise and honor is due your holy name, 0 Lord,
People: You are the One who answers our prayers!
Leader: Every heart would turn to You, if only they knew,
People: You are a God who forgives and heals our sin!
Leader: You are the One who brings peace to a troubled world,
People- You are the hope of every searching heart!
Leader-. If the mountains and valleys could sing, 0 Lord,
People: They would surely break into songs of joy!
Leader: For you are the God who saves,
People: The salvation of all who call upon your name! Amen!

 

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord God Almighty, Ruler of heaven and earth; we dare not lift our eyes into the brilliance of Your holiness. Cover us, we pray, with the cloak of Your mercy and the grace of Jesus Your Son. Then may we heartily turn from all that would keep us from Your holy love and flee into Your waiting arms for refuge and strength. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Dear friends, if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Trust by your faith that in Christ we are forgiven. Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

[General Prayer of Thanksgiving - from the Book of Common Prayer]

A Prayer of Dedication

Our empty hearts are filled with joy. Our weary spirits are renewed.
Our fervent prayers are answered. 0 Lord God, how amazing is your
love and grace in all the world! How can we do anything less than bring the very best we have to give? The gifts and the lives behind these gifts are yours and yours alone. Bless us and bind us ever closer to your heart. Amen.