MAR 13, 2016, FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

THE PEOPLE WHOM YOU HAVE REDEEMED

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

Lections: Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:7-13; John 12:1-8

I

God has done a new thing, as he promised he would; he has brought the dead to life, and wherever two or three of us are gathered in prayer, we are God’s witnesses. We have heard God say, through the mouth of Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God announces the fulfillment of redemption history, and asks its most important question:  Do you not perceive it?  This question is addressed to the world, today, and this itself is miraculous.

Isaiah was a prophet in Judah 800 years before the birth of Christ; the name “Isaiah” means salvation.  His prophesized about two events:  the Babylonian return from exile, which was the shadow event, and the arrival of the Messiah, which was its fulfillment.  Two hundred years after he spoke, the people of Judah would be deported to Babylon, and almost a century would go by before they would return to their land, and begin their lives again, with the rebuilding of their temple. Their deliverance from Babylonian captivity recalls their deliverance from Egypt, almost 600 years earlier, and heralds the coming of the Messiah, almost 500 years later. These three historical events manifest the faithfulness of God towards his people, first to the nation of Israel, and then to his church, in history as it unfolds on our journey through this world.  

Nehemiah was one of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and worked on rebuilding the Temple.  The Temple is integral to Israel’s identity as a nation; the temple signifies the way of life of God’s chosen people. When the Temple was destroyed a second time, by the Romans, in 70 A.D., Jewish worship became conformed to synagogues.  Early Christians also worshipped in synagogues, until they were expelled for their belief that the Messiah had indeed come to his people and redeemed them.  So the church and Israel went their separate ways.  For Christians, the Temple of God is to be found in the heart, the place in which we worship God. We can gather as a congregation anywhere; no building or city is sacred to us.  From its earliest beginnings, however, the church affirmed the continuity of its redemption history with that of Israel. The church shares this claim with the people of Israel:  we are “the people whom you have redeemed.”

This is what God said to his people through Nehemiah: “if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.”  And this is how Nehemiah answered: “They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand” (Neh 1:10).  Nehemiah is quoting from Deuteronomy’s account of the 40 years Israel was in the wilderness with Moses; the Israelites have made the Golden Calf, in direct disobedience of God, and Moses pleads for God’s mercy, saying “But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.” Nehemiah is reminding the people that redemption follows repentance. Similar words were heard earlier in Deuteronomy, in the context of atonement for an unsolved murder:

“Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.’ And the blood guiltiness shall be forgiven them” (Deuteronomy 21:8).

The church depends, as does Israel, on the faithfulness of God, to accomplish that which has been promised: redemption follows repentance.

This singular fact recurs throughout Scripture. In Chronicles we read,

“What one nation in the earth is like Your people Israel, whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people, to make You a name by great and terrible things, in driving out nations from before Your people, whom You redeemed out of Egypt” (1 Chronicles 17:21)?

The psalmist sings,

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalm 77:15).

And once more in Isaiah, we hear,

Now this is what the LORD says– the One who created you, Jacob, and the One who formed you, Israel–” Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine (Isa 43:1).

II

The Psalmist, the Prophet Called Salvation, and the Builder of the Temple render redemption with the language of experience and delight. This is how Nehemiah speaks:

 “11 And You divided the sea before them,

So that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land;

And their persecutors You threw into the deep,

As a stone into the mighty waters.

12 Moreover You led them by day with a cloudy pillar,

And by night with a pillar of fire,

To give them light on the road

Which they should travel.

13 You came down also on Mount Sinai,

And spoke with them from heaven,

And gave them just ordinances and true laws,

Good statutes and commandments.

14 You made known to them Your holy Sabbath,

And commanded them precepts, statutes and laws,

By the hand of Moses Your servant.

15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger,

And brought them water out of the rock for their thirst,

And told them to go in to possess the land

Which You had sworn to give them” (Nehemiah 9:11-15).

 

Tenderly, the Psalmist sings of a divine shepherding:

19 Your way was in the sea,

Your path in the great waters,

And Your footsteps were not known.

20 You led Your people like a flock

By the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:19-20).

 

In Psalm 126, which is one of the Songs of Ascent, we are possessed by the poetry of the redeemed heart:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.”

 

The Songs of Ascent are psalms traditionally sung by pilgrims traveling up the road to Jerusalem for its three temple festivals: Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles. Paul borrows from the pilgrim imagery in his letter to the Philippians, where he speaks of “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” during his remarks regarding perfection and his exhortation to “walk according to the pattern you have in us:”

“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:13-17).

III

We frequently find, alongside the redemption language of the Hebrew scriptures, a language of the Temple, as in these verses from The Song of Moses and Miriam:

You in Your mercy have led forth

The people whom You have redeemed;

You have guided them in Your strength

To Your holy habitation.

You will bring them in and plant them

In the mountain of Your inheritance,

In the place, O Lord, which You have made

For Your own dwelling,

The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established” (Exodus 15:13, 17).

The Psalmist will say,

Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old, Which You have redeemed to be the tribe of Your inheritance; And this Mount Zion, where You have dwelt” (Psalm 74:2).

And again:

52 But He made His own people go forth like sheep,

And guided them in the wilderness like a flock;

53 And He led them on safely, so that they did not fear;

But the sea overwhelmed their enemies.

54 And He brought them to His holy border,

This mountain which His right hand had acquired.

55 He also drove out the nations before them,

Allotted them an inheritance by survey,

And made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents” (Psalm 78:52-55).

 

In Deuteronomy, we read:

But you shall seek the place where the Lord your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 12:5-7).

The juxtaposition of redemption language with Temple imagery tells us that the God who has redeemed his people has done so for a purpose. Our being fulfilled in relationship with God, serving God, guarding God’s Word, and keeping the service of his dwelling place, as if it were a garden.[i]

IV

When we listen to Jesus, who is the Christ, we are convinced by truth.  We receive the gift of grace to believe, by which we turn from whatever else we might have been doing, and accept Jesus into our lives; we place our trust in him.  He, in turn, imputes righteousness to us, because of our belief, and we are redeemed. Out of the joy and gladness in our hearts, we dedicate ourselves to serving him faithfully in the priestly functions originally assigned to Adam. We set out on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, as the Hebrew pilgrims once set out on the path to Jerusalem.  The span of redemption history is vast, beginning in the Garden of Eden and continuing through the time John beholds in his vision of Revelation.

The Gospel story of Mary and Martha reminds us first that our trust in Jesus is not misplaced; he is the Redeemer, as we have seen in the sign of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.  Indeed, Jesus puts an end to death, and when the new heaven and earth, represented by John with temple language, is coterminous with all of creation, all of the past will no longer be remembered.  We will no longer be as busy as Martha; instead, we will all be priests of eternity; we all be like Mary. Even today, we should know not to be busy; we should wash each other’s feet, and perfume the feet of our Lord and Savior.  And we should remember the words God spoke through the Prophet Called Salvation: “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee” (Isaiah 43:1).

[i] see G.K.Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP, 2004).

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