December 8, 2013

Shall Rest on Him

Passage: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Service Type:

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

If I were to ask you to list the names of the people who figure in the birth stories of Jesus, the name Elizabeth may not come as readily as say Mary or Joseph. Elizabeth is the other mother in the story—the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins—which makes Jesus and John the Baptist cousins. Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy when her teenage cousin Mary came to visit. (The “First Christmas” video we are seeing today is an imaginative rendering of the reflections of Elizabeth on that first Christmas.)

(First Christmas video: Elizabeth) (approx. 3 minutes)

In August of this year a magistrate in Tennessee (USA) ordered parents to change the name on the birth certificate of their seven-month-old infant. The name of on this child`s birth certificate was Messiah DeShawn Martin. The magistrate was concerned for potential issues this might cause the child as he got older. In the ruling the magistrate wrote: “The word Messiah is a title and it`s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

It would be hard for us to appreciate everything that was loaded into the word “Messiah” as it was uttered on the lips of devout first century Jews like Elizabeth. The visions of hope that the word sparked in her imagination—visions like those of Isaiah’s peaceful kingdom where the “wolf lives with the lamb”—touched the nerve of their great longing to be released from the brutalities of Roman occupation. “How long, O Lord, how long?” This was the cry the arrival of the Messiah would answer. Messiah would be God’s signal that he had remembered; that God had not forgotten his promises or his people. Are you wondering “how long” about some troubling matter in your life?

In the year 733 BC the King of Aram (Damascus) and the King of Israel (northern 10 Jewish tribes) attacked King Ahaz of Judah in a siege of Jerusalem. The two attacking kings had teamed up to convince the nation of Judah to join them in war against the rising superpower Assyria (Nineveh). Ahaz turned to the prophet Isaiah for counsel; Isaiah encouraged him to stand against these two kings—the word of the Lord through Isaiah was that this alliance would soon end. Ahaz, unwilling to simply trust the promise of God through Isaiah, thought he should get a little insurance, so made a pact with Assyria for help to resist these two kings.

This turns out to be a deal with the devil. As things unfold, an Assyrian King named Sennacherib turns of Judah and besieges Jerusalem. You can read of the defeat and death of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19. Maybe, like me, some of you were introduced to Lord Byron’s (1788–1824) account of this event in his poem The Destruction of Sennacherib.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

I can assure you of this—for the people in Judah during the Assyrian invasion and for the first century Israeli under Roman occupation, what they suffered was anything but poetic. It was during those troubling days of Assyrian aggression that the promise of Messiah emerges in Isaiah’s preaching. The promise that “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look the young virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”; the promise on the lips of Elizabeth in our video—“he is named wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace”; the promise in the text for this sermon—“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The promise of Messiah (Christ)—which means anointed—is a promise that everything God purposes to do for the world will hinge on the arrival of a person. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”

The theme of the sermons of Advent and Christmas this year is Christmas decorating; that is the Christmas furnishings of our minds and hearts. The decoration we hung last week was that Jesus is coming again. This week I invite you to place the Messiah decoration; Messiah—it all rests on him.

1. The spirit of the Lord rests on him; and as Isaiah unpacks a little of what this means he tell us that it means the spirit of wisdom and understanding rests on him. There is no lack or limit to his wisdom and understanding. Whatever promise there is for us in the wisdom of God or the understanding of the One who made all things, this rests on and in Jesus. I love the way this is captured in the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

I grew up going to church—the Sunday after I was born I was at church. I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not believe. When I went to university it seemed that everything about my Christian faith was under assault. Though never said quite this directly, the clear implication was that if you had an ounce of intellect you would abandon such quaint beliefs—like the virgin birth of our Saviour for example. Human reason ruled and the gospels were said to not be able to hold up under reason’s scrutiny. I didn’t want to abandon faith and neither did I want to be stupid. I could not imagine that my Saviour who died to redeem me would deprecate the intellect he created in me to use.

I studied philosophy. I remember one particular seminar. We were discussing existentialism. As we were pressing the implications of existentialism’s premises to their logical conclusion I was surprised by a coldness that sent a chill through me; this odd sense of terror griped my heart. Suddenly I could see and feel that if the existentialist was correct about the nature of human existence then my life really has no point. It was like a hand on my shoulder pulled me back; I was enveloped by this great sense of peace that Jesus who gave his life for me didn’t think my life pointless. I do not have to live in that awful angst where existentialism left me. Instead the One who is reality itself—the one in whom is all wisdom and understanding—has come among us and made himself known to me!

My colleague and friend Dr. Victor Shepherd also studied philosophy. He related the following story: “Never will I forget the day I went to see my favourite philosophy professor, Emil Fackenheim, about a term paper I had to write. … We talked about my essay for five minutes. Then he pushed his glasses up onto his forehead, tipped his chair back, put his feet on his desk, and fired up a big cigar. “Philosophy”, he said to me, “we’ve talked enough about philosophy. Let’s talk about GOD. (I can’t pronounce the word properly. When Fackenheim said ‘God’ the whole room filled with the shekinah, the presence.) Shepherd, if modernity thinks about God at all, it thinks God is vague while we human beings are concrete. The truth is just the opposite. It’s God who is concrete and it’s we who are vague. There’s no question mark hanging above Him; the question mark is hanging above us. There’s nothing problematic about Him; but in the wake of the depredations of the past 100 years there’s everything problematic about humankind.” … Fackenheim concluded, “Just remember, Shepherd, God is not the answer to our questions; God is forever the question to our ‘answers’. And don’t forget: it’s we who are ‘iffy’ and insubstantial and dubious; but concerning him there is nothing ‘iffy’ or insubstantial or dubious at all.”

Think about science for a moment. Science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then no one could think truthfully about the physical world. Then what is the origin of this correlation, this match-up? The Apostle John tells is it is the Word made flesh—Jesus. John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and a Christian writes, "The Word is God's agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to the rationality that is in the world." The spirit of wisdom and understanding rests on him, writes Isaiah.

Who is it that we meet in Jesus Christ? Brian D. McLaren in his book Finding Faith: A Search for What Is Real described well that our clearest and best articulations are still inadequate to circumscribe him in any complete way. McLaren writes:

“I don't want to make it sound like I have Jesus all figured out. I don't. Nearly every Sunday for many years I have preached about Jesus and his teachings. That means that every week I have pondered Jesus and his message for hours on end. I have read hundreds of books about Jesus and his message and his ongoing mission on earth, and I have done some writing myself. But still, I must confess that Jesus in many ways eludes me, even as he attracts me.

Behind the pages of the gospels—the four accounts of Jesus' life included in the New Testament—I find someone really there, someone substantial, too real, too vigorous, too alive, too robust to be reduced to a quick formula or set of principles. I push, and he pushes back. He won't be domesticated, mastered, outlined, packaged, shrink-wrapped, or nailed down (at least, not for long). That is frustrating at times. But it is also quite wonderful.”

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
2. The spirit of the Lord rests on him; in Isaiah’s unpacking he tell us that it means the spirit of counsel and might rests on him. Another way you could say this is the spirit of purpose and power rests on him—the purposes and power of God.

Most of us know that the odds of winning a lottery jackpot are greater than being struck by lightning; in fact there is a greater chance of getting wiped out by an asteroid than winning lotteries’ largest jackpots. (A Mr. Bill Isles of Kansas was struck by lightning three hours after buying three Mega Millions lottery tickets. According to the news story, on the way to his car after buying the tickets he commented to a friend “I’ve got a better chance of being struck by lightning that winning the lottery.” He was correct. Later Mr. Isles was standing in his back yard when lightning struck nearby and he was thrown to the ground in the wake of its impact. He didn’t win the lottery, by the way). Yet, we buy tickets.

The spirit of counsel and might rests on Jesus. Energized by this spirit of counsel and might that Jesus said of the necessities of life—“your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” It is my conviction that energies and resources spent on the acquisition of lottery tickets are better spent in prayer; in conversation with the one in whom the counsel of God to direct and might of God to achieve reside.

Perhaps you at a crossroads to decide some direction in your life; to reconsider work; to reshape or change the business we are trying to build; to deal with a moment of trouble in a relationship; what direction I should go or what steps should I take. Jesus Christ does not leave the believer alone to sort out what is best. Bible in hand and prayer in your heart will produce much more than a lottery ticket.

How does the believer discern. It begins in the joy of knowing from who it is we seek counsel and help—the spirit of counsel and might rests on him. Prayer is the mechanism God commits himself to hear and work through. The Bible give us the bigger blueprint for what God is doing in the world and the principles for living lives of obedience to him. Having prayed we need to take some action—consult the wisdom of others, write a goal, do what you know to do that is in front of you and trust that God will do as he promises—“all these things will be given to you as well.” Seek and you will find—this is the promise of God.

Many of us can pray and can read the Bible to acquaint ourselves with the voice and ways of God but the last step is a struggle—to take action. How can I know for sure this is what I should do, that this is God’s next step for me? We are like the little girl standing on the edge of the pool; her mother is standing in the pool hands out telling her to jump, she will catch her; but the little girl keeps on saying “come closer, Mummy.” God has promised is to catch us; we keep saying—come closer God I have to see you are going to catch me. For your sake and the Saviour’s sake—jump, do something!

Of course the cross is where we see that God will spare not even himself for our sakes. He who did not spare his own Son, will he not with him give us everything else?

Today I have invited you to place the Messiah decoration; Messiah—it all rests on him. I love the bluntness of John the Baptist—what Isaiah said so eloquently about Messiah John puts in a much earthier way—“I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” And yet this one who sandals we are not worthy to carry deems us worthy to be his own. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him!