Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Garden

Here we are. This is advent week three. We have one more week of advent after this one, then Christmas. Can you believe it’s almost here? I feel like week three of any month can go one of two ways. If you’re looking forward to something coming up, like Christmas, then week three can be so slow. When will it end? When will we get there? It’s like you’re a kid on a road trip. “Dad are we any closer?” I remember a few times when I was a child, my family drove to visit relatives in Jacksonville or on up to Atlanta. To an eight-year-old, eight hours in a car is excruciating. Who am I kidding? Eight hours in a car is excruciating no matter how old you are.

On the other hand, if the thing you’re waiting for is something you’re not quite ready for (like a writing deadline) it seems like time rushes ahead at breakneck speed. I sit at my computer to type. I notice my desk needs cleaning, and before I know it the deadline is already here? What happened to the time?

I’m curious about how you’re experiencing Advent this year? Have you had a chance to slow down at all? Have you found the Advent devotional to be helpful?

I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of it this year. I feel like time is marching ahead so quickly. I’ve loved our advent services this year! But still, I feel very hurried. I realize we’re here at one and a half weeks until Christmas, and I haven’t sent any Christmas cards, and I haven’t really thought about gifts. I feel a little like my praying and bible reading have been shoved in between other things.

So I want to take a minute to pray about that. Let’s pray.

If you have Bibles with you, please turn to Isaiah 61.

[1] The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; [2] to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; [3] to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. [4] They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

[5] Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; [6] but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. [7] Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.

[8] For I the LORD love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. [9] Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.
[10] I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. [11] For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.
Two weeks ago, we did an FAQ about advent, but then we started to look at the book of Isaiah, and how the prophets generally, and Isaiah specifically prophesied the coming of a servant of the Lord who would save his people. And then we started to take a glimpse at the character of this servant of God by looking at Isaiah 42. Who is this servant of God? If I could retroactively give that one a title, it would be something like “The character of the King”

Then last week, we read Isaiah 9. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. The government will rest on his shoulders. I hope we began to see a little bit more about the king and a little about the kingdom he’s going to bring about. We could call that one “Characteristics of the Kingdom”

This week, our reading came from Isaiah 61. We’re going to focus on verse 11. But first I want you to see again where this fits into Isaiah. You have an outline of Isaiah in your handout. If you look at the outline you can where we are. We started by looking at the prophesied servant. We looked at the promise of a messiah. Now we’re reading a section about the prophesied conqueror.

We’ve seen that the Lord has a King. That’s what the word messiah means. Anointed one. That’s how Israel appointed their kings. Saul was anointed. David was anointed after him. But there was a promised anointed one that would come to rescue the people. But not only that, this promised king was a servant. He is a kind and gentle servant—a servant who would endure suffering. He would even be pierced for our sins, by his wounds we will be healed. And now, not only is he a suffering servant, he will also be a conqueror. As we’re waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we’re seeing these aspects of his character.

This servant of God has been given a very happy message for the people of Israel. Their suffering will be ended. You can see that clearly in verses 1-4. The servant will proclaim the year of God’s favor. He’s bringing good news to the poor. Comfort for those who are mourning. Happiness instead of mourning. Praise not sorrow.

The tables will be turned. We see in verse 4 that the old ruins, the cities that had been destroyed will be rebuilt. This servant will repair the devastation of many generations.

These are all themes we should recognize from the last couple weeks. Verse 1: He will proclaim liberty to the captives. Verse 8: The Lord loves Justice.

But today, let’s meditate together on verse 11.

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.
Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, uses the image of a farm—or of a garden—to illustrate something about the coming of this day of the Lord, of his kingdom. Now listen to this. In Mark 4:26, Jesus tells a parable to his disciples. I want you to hear this. It’s called the parable of the seed growing.

[26] And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. [27] He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. [28] The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. [29] But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
So how does the kingdom of God come about? We need to notice three things. First, the farmer works the field and sows the grain. Second, the farmer sleeps. Third, God grants the growth.

FIRST, THE FARMER WORKS THE FIELD AND SOWS THE GRAIN. The first thing to notice is how the farmer works the field. The thrust of our passage is that God is bringing salvation. God is promising that he will rescue his people. Reading Isaiah 61, it’s clear that God is the one pulling the weight. We’ll get there in a moment. But he gives us this image of sowing in a garden.

Have you ever planted a garden? I remember when I was a child, my dad planted a garden in our back yard. I was very small at the time—maybe five or six or seven. I remember that we grew summer squash among other things. I love summer squash. It makes me think something special is happening, because whenever we had a big family meal, like thanksgiving or Christmas, you could be sure squash in on the menu. When you plant a garden it takes a lot of work. Either you till the soil (if you have soil) or you build a raised bed and put soil in it. Then you make rows in the soil. Then you plant seeds. Then you water the garden. And when the plants start to grow, you do what you can to make sure that pests don’t eat all your vegetables. There’s a lot of work to do, if you want to move from just the idea of planting a garden to the reality of bringing in squash at the end of the season.

In a similar sense, the people of Israel here are at least reminded of the work they will be doing. Verse 6—you shall be called priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God. Verse 4—they shall build up ancient ruins, they shall repair ruined cities.

This actually started to happen when they were delivered from Exile in Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and his people rebuilt the temple and restored biblical teaching and temple worship. Nehemiah and his people rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem, and instituted a list of reforms. You have it in the history of the people of Israel that when they were delivered from Captivity, they would make a covenant with God and they would be priests and ministers of the Lord. They would also work to rebuild. That’s exactly what they did.

What about us? Christ has saved us, bringing us out of slavery to our sin, and saving us from the death sentence we rightly deserved for breaking God’s law. We are just like the people of Israel in that sense. What sort of work do we need to go about doing? There are essentially two things we can be doing. We can share the gospel, and we can engage the world through our jobs, through our communities.

We can share the gospel. God calls us as Christians to be a kingdom of priests. God says that about Israel in Exodus 19, but he says it about you and me, too, in 1Peter 2:9 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Jesus commissions us to share the gospel in Matthew 28 “[19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We are also called to be ready to give an answer to people. 1Peter 3:15 “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. We are called to proclaim the good news to people around us.

But we’re also called to engage the word. There are so many ways that we can be, in a sense, radically ordinary. One way is very simply to do a good job at work. Ephesians 6-“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters…as you would Christ... rendering service with a good will as to the Lord.” Did you know that by the various jobs God has given us, he uses us to answer the Lord’s Prayer for other people? We pray “give us today our daily bread” and God ordinarily answers that prayer by calling some people to be farmers and others to be delivery drivers and others to be grocers. When you do a good job at work, the Lord is using you to answer that prayer for someone.

When you do your job to the Glory of God, you’re taking something ordinary and seemingly inconsequential—I know that’s how my job seems to me in the moment, when I’m doing data entry—God takes the seemingly inconsequential and makes it a revolutionary kingdom-conquering action. It’s revolutionary because he’s moving you to love your neighbors.

When you share the gospel and when you love your neighbors well through your job, or through volunteering in the community, or through respectful political engagement, or whatever he’s calling you to, then you’re participating in God’s answer to the prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s actually happening when you do the simple, radical, ordinary work God’s called you to. Farmers put in the hard work.

SECOND, THE FARMER GOES TO SLEEP AT NIGHT. After the farmer has tilled the soil, after they’ve planted the seeds, watered the crops and spread the fertilizer, the sun goes down and they go to sleep. There’s only so much the farmer can do. A farmer cannot make the plant sprout. As we see in Isaiah 61.11, the garden itself causes that to happen. Jesus says in Mark 4 that by itself, the seed sprouts and grows. The farmer doesn’t know how it happens, only that it happens. I’m sure agricultural scientists could probably tell you something about how that works, but if you ask me, it looks an awful lot like deep magic.

Have you seen the time-lapse videos of a brand-new plant growing out of the ground, moving around to point its leaves at the sun? Absolutely miraculous!

The point is that the farmer doesn’t do that. After she’s put in her work, she goes to sleep at night. The plant won’t grow for a month, and won’t be ready for harvest for another month. That’s a lot of waiting, especially for something that makes up a farmer’s livelihood. How does the farmer sleep? She has to trust the fact that this crop will grow. The garden will cause the crop to grow the same way it has year after year.

Remember the story of Ezra and Nehemiah? Seventy years after the people went into exile like God promised, God moved King Cyrus’s heart to send the people back to Israel to rebuild the temple. God moved the king’s heart.

[1] The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1 ESV)
So, having dedicated ourselves to whatever work God has called us to, our second job is to rest and trust God to bring about his plan. The difficult part about this is that it often seems like it takes a long time. An entire generation died in the wilderness when God was bringing Israel to the Promised Land from Egypt. Again, another entire generation died while Israel was in exile in Babylon. After that, it was four hundred years before the birth of Jesus. And then after Jesus ascended to heaven it has been nearly two thousand years.

Sometimes, it seems like we’re making no difference at all. It appears that the world is no better off. And we look around and find wars and rumors of wars. We hear reports that wars are getting bloodier. We hear reports of increasing religious persecution of Christians. We look around and it seems like the world doesn’t see evangelicals as particularly nice people.

But the truth is, all the while, we have to understand that God is working out his plan. In Africa, China, South America, India, the Middle East, around the world, world evangelization is happening. Since 1900 practicing Christians went from about 3% of the world population to right around 12% in 2010. Half of that growth happened since 1980. I included the chart in your handout. It may look like nothing is happening—like the world isn’t getting better, but we know—we have to trust—that god is working out his plan.

Galatians 4 says

[4] When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, [5] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)
When Christ was born, he was born in what Paul called “the fullness of time.” Again in Ephesians 1—

[7] In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, [8] which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight [9] making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ [10] as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10 ESV)
Even now, God is working out his plan. He’s bringing the kingdom into existence. He’s saving countless numbers of people right now, and every single one of them are committing radical, revolutionary, ordinary acts of love, by putting in a full day of work for their bosses and inviting their neighbors over for dinner, and paying their taxes.

Do the work God calls you to, and go to sleep. Rest well, knowing that God is actually working it all out.

THIRD, GOD GRANTS THE GROWTH. While we’re preaching—that means all of us—while we’re giving reasons to our neighbors of the hope we have in Christ, and while we’re faithfully engaging the world around us, and while we sleep soundly at night, the Lord is actually changing the world. Remember what we read in the first half of Isaiah 61? Jesus is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and he’s proclaiming the coming of the day of the Lord. One day when people from every tribe and tongue and nation are worshipping God, he will come back again and usher in the new world—the bible calls it the new heavens and the new earth. Hear this passage from 2 Peter, and we’ll close. 2 Peter 3:9—

[9] The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. [10] But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

[11] Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, [12] waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! [13] But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:9-13 ESV)
The Lord is taking his time in order to be patient with us, giving us all the time we need to turn to him in repentance and faith. He is granting the gift of repentance and faith left and right in the world today. As an aside, what an exciting time to be involved in international missions! Talk to Blessing this week if you want to know how you can participate. One day soon The Lord will come back and he will bring to completion the kingdom he started to build when he rose to heaven and that he promised here in Isiah 61. This is good news for the poor and liberty for the captives. The Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. He is doing it even now.

There’s no need to feel so much pressure this advent. We have freedom to make the space, take the time to praise God for what he’s doing around us.

Date: 14 December 2014
Text: Isaiah 61
Location: Church at the Mall, GAP Connect Group
Series: Advent

No comments:

Print Friendly and PDF