Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Long Arm of the LORD... Never To Short To Save (Isaiah 59, Romans 3:21-26)

The world cup is on in Brazil at the moment… and because of that I have to admit I’ve been into the office a little late a few times this week, and I’m giving you advance warning I will be late on the odd occasion for the next few I might as well… Like a lot of New Zealanders I become a dedicated soccer/football fan for a short period of time once every four years… and Thank you TVNZ for showing games free to air.

And because of the world cup this is the image that came to mind as I reflected on the opening verse of Isaiah 59. It’s the Mexican goalie Ochoa making what has been describes as one of the greatest saves in World Cup Final history. Without any thought of his personal safety he dived towards the goal post and just gets enough of his figures on the ball at the last possible moment to push it wide of the goal. He ended up wrapped round the post but after making the save and a raft of other almost equally amazing saves, the sting of leather ball ricocheting off finger and palm and the bumps and bruises of colliding with ground and post were forgotten as Mexico kept Brazil to a goalless draw. And he has become a national hero. I don’t want to sound flippant but… His arm was definitely not too short to save.

The Image that is on the cover of our news sheet and on the screen through our service this morning is one that normally comes to mind for me when we contemplate the first phrase in our reading this morning ‘Surely the Arm of the LORD is not too short to save’. The arms of Jesus nailed to a cross… Jesus: the saviour of the world. While saving a goal at the world cup is serious we are are talking of someone who saved us from something a lot more serious…

As a church we are doing the E100 essential Jesus Bible reading challenge, a series of daily bible readings focusing on Jesus. Each week we are looking at one of the readings from the coming week in our services. Last week welooked at Hebrews 1;1-4, One of five passages from the New Testament the Essential Jesus challenge starts with; where the author gives some insight into the question ‘who is Jesus?’ and this week we turn to start to look at how Jesus fits into the wider narrative of the scriptures… In particular ‘the need for a savior’, why did Jesus come into the world and what does it mean that Jesus is the savior of the World? Isaiah 59 sets out the problem very eloquently and God’s promise that he will provide a solution, a savior very well. The big complex and difficult theological word and at the same time the short answer for the need of a savior is ‘sin’.

The book of Isaiah readily falls into at least two parts, it starts with what is called by many a book of Judgement, showing all the things that Israel has done in terms of breaking the covenant relationship it has with God, its sins, and as a result of that it predicts that Israel will be taken into exile in Babylon. There is a change of emphasis in Chapter 40 and the book becomes one of comfort for Israel in exile, with the promise of restoration. While Isaiah 59 may not seem that comforting it again points out that the problem is that Israel has broken her covenant relationship with God the hope is that God is going to do something to fix that problem permanently. In the scheme of scripture this is part of a bigger story as our reading in Romans 3 says it’s the reality that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. .

The Greek word Sin in Romans has a sporting connotation. Again one of the things that has struck me in the world cup has been the wild shots that players will take at goal. They focus on the goal and then kick the ball sometimes from great distances  and other times with the goal mouth open and there just being no chance that they will miss and the ball goes flying up over the bar into the crowd or off to the left or the right. That is sort of what the word translated sin means.

It comes from the world of archery and means an arrow not hitting the bullseye. Often when we speak of falling short we have this idea of not living up to a list of impossibly high moral absolutes but when we speak of falling short of the glory of God, it is that we have fallen short of the glorious ideal of peace and wholeness and life that God has for us as human beings and of his very character which is whole, so much so that we call God pure and holy.  Like in the image here Sin is serious because of the disastrous impact missing that mark has on us.
Isaiah 59 gives us insights into why God is against sin, and why he takes it seriously.

The first thing that Isaiah 59 tells us about sin is that God takes it seriously because it breaks our relationship and communication with God. The story does not start with sin, but rather with God, and God creating humanity for a loving relationship with him. The Genesis narrative tells us that God made us in his own image, that when God made us he saw it as very good. The shorter Westminster catechism, part of the subordinate standards of our Presbyterian Church puts it like this… what is the chief end of Humanity? To know and enjoy God always. One of the readings for this week is from genesis three which is the narrative of Adam and Eve, doing what God has told them not to and breaking that relationship. In fact the rest of the scriptures could be said to be the narrative of God working to restore that relationship. The big theological word for that is the idea of Heilsgeschichte or the scriptures as the record of God’s salvation history.

The second thing that Isaiah 59 says about sin is that God is against it because it breaks down our relationships with each other. The writer points out that because of humanities fallen-ness the way of peace is not known that Justice is far from us and there is darkness and shadow. I don’t have to tell you of the pain and suffering and sorrow that we can inflict upon each other because we see it round us and we all carry the scars and wounds of it as well. I’ve mentioned it before that Leonard Sweet talks about the idea of peace and wholeness being a matrix of right relationships, relationship with God with each other, with the created order, with our possessions and in the spiritual realm, even with ourselves and sin has the effect of breaking all those down. We see within humanity evil and injustice flourishing. You just need to turn on the TV news to see it every day and every night.

My daughter Bethany has been doing a research topic on Martin Luther for history, and one of the things she noted was that a lot of the people writing from a humanist and secular point of view were critical of Luther’s low opinion of human nature. And I had to think about that for a while and while its more connected to Calvin I wondered if it was that they had a negative understanding of the theological idea of ‘total depravity’, People often believe that means human beings as bad as they can be, but that is not what Christians believe. The reality is that our understanding of humanity is that we are made in the image of God and capable of the most amazing acts of kindness and goodness and justice, but that because of a result of sin that that image is marred and we are capable of such injustice and downright evil. I believe it is that we have a realistic view of the human condition. “total depravity’ means that while capable of good humans are not able to restore that matrix of right  relationships particularly with God in and of ourselves, in fact we come nowhere near it, those relationships and the very image of God with us remains broken and we need help from outside.

The third reason that God treats sin seriously is that it blinds us to the truth, In Isaiah 59:14-15 it talks of Justice being driven back and truth not being found. When Jesus healed the blind man, in John chapter 9, it leads on to a discussion with the Pharisees about being spiritual blind. Jesus says they are Blind to the truth about God and his love for us, and the person of Jesus. Often that blindness to the truth is to deny our own sinful nature and our need for a savior. The kingdom of God says Jesus is for those who are aware of their spiritual poverty.

These points can be summed up by saying that God takes Sin seriously because its consequence is death ‘the wages of sin is death’ as it said in our reading from Romans 3… Jim Wallace explains this by using two Greek words we translate as life when talking about human beings. We have bios life… the life share with all creatures that expresses itself in MRS GREN (Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Nutrition), which we equate with the natural life span of a creature… and like all other creatures this life comes to an end… the other word is Zoe, again the idea from genesis that humanity was made in the image of God, that God breathed Spiritual life into us, sin destroys this second idea of life a life that goes beyond just the physical, what the scripture calls eternal life. Sin destroys this.

Lastly God takes sin seriously because we know that he was willing to put himself on the line to provide a way of saving us from sin, and its effects and consequences. To restore our relationship with God, and with each other and that whole matrix of relationships that Sweet talks about, to make us whole and to give us eternal life.  Again the caricature often presented of God is that of judging human beings for our sin… the focus is on the hellfire and damnation on writing us off… but Isaiah 59 says that while God looks with displeasure on Sin and injustice he acts towards it in a righteous manner.

The image that is used is that of a redeemer. In Ancient Near eastern society, if you could not pay back a debt you owed your creditor could sell you into slavery to recoup his money. The only way to save you from that slavery was for a kind kinsman to buy you back by paying your debt, and buying your freedom. It would be a costly endeavour and an act of great love and commitment to a person, and Isaiah is saying that God is willing to be that loving kinsman and buy back those who would repent of their sins.

Christians believe that that redeemer and savior is Jesus Christ. That through his life death and resurrection, Jesus dealt with the sins.  We are invited then to live in a new way in Gods Kingdom, with the God’s Spirit living in us and with us to enable us to stop our sinfulness and keep God’s words and ways.

 I used the Illustration of Ochoa, the Mexican goalie this morning to start you thinking about long arms and it may have been a bit silly… But I want to finish by coming back to thinking about arms. God is serious about sin because of the disastrous effects it has on humanity, so we should equally be serious about sin. We often think of the long arm of the law as being someone coming to get us to punish us when we do something wrong but the hope comes in that the Long arm of the LORD that Isaiah talks about is not about punishment, it is about saving us..  I want to encourage all of you this morning to trust yourself into the arms of the Lord… they are never too short to save.

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