Jesus: Our Savior and Judge
This fall, our son Sterling, who is a sophomore at Wilmington College in my hometown of Wilmington, Ohio, was the male lead in a musical called “Urinetown.” He’s down there double majoring in communication arts and theater. When the musical ended, we were chatting with Sterling out in the lobby and I said, “Well THAT was depressing.” One of his friends from Traverse City had gone down and surprised him that weekend and saw the show twice, and he laughed and said, “Well what did you expect with a show named ‘Urinetown?’”
“Urinetown” is a satirical, dystopian, comedic look at our – at humanity’s – ability, or lack of ability, to save ourselves. The premise is that there’s a 20-year drought, and water is so scarce that private toilets are unthinkable, so everyone has to pay to use a public toilet, because public … well, you know … is against the law. A greedy, rich corporate tycoon who controls the public toilets keeps raising prices, and those who can’t pay and thus, well, you know … behind a bush, are arrested and taken to Urinetown.
The twist comes at the end, when Sterling’s character, who has been leading a revolution and falling in love with the rich tycoon’s naïve daughter, is taken to Urinetown, and she takes over the revolution and wins. So people can … well, you know … for free wherever they want. It is then that we find out that while yes, the tycoon was greedy, he was actually paying to have the quality of the groundwater tested to make sure that the water that WAS left was clean. And while the revolutionaries had good intentions – freedom for the people – their actions had unintended consequences: When the people … well, you know … wherever they wanted, the remaining water on earth was tainted. Ultimately, everyone lost. It wasn’t a “happily ever after” kind of show.
Years ago, there was an ad in the New York Times that said, “The meaning of Christmas is that love will triumph and that we will be able to put together a world of unity and peace.” In other words, we have the light within us, and so we are the ones who can dispel the darkness of the world. WE can overcome poverty, injustice, violence, and evil. If WE work together, WE can create a “world of unity and peace.”
Can we? One of the most thoughtful world leaders of the late 20th century was Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic. He had a unique vantage point from which to peer deeply into both socialism and capitalism, and he was not optimistic that either would, by itself, solve the greatest human problems. He knew that science unguided by moral principles had given us the Holocaust. He concluded that neither technology nor the state nor the market alone could save us from nuclear degradation. “Pursuit of the good life will not help humanity save itself, nor is democracy alone enough,” Havel said. “A turning to and seeing of … God is needed.” The human race constantly forgets, he added, that “he is not God.”
Advent is a period the body of Christ sets aside – 4 weeks – to prepare ourselves spiritually – not with shopping and baking and planning and decorating and scheduling – but spiritually to celebrate Christmas. To celebrate and give thanks for the gift of grace that Christmas represents – the coming of Christ into the world to save us. And during THIS Advent season, we’ve been walking together through the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah, looking at the prophecies of Isaiah concerning the coming of God’s messiah. Because Isaiah presents his coming as truly good news. Good news for those living in troubling times. And the longer I live, the more I realize that all times are troubling times. Turn with me to Isaiah 65:1.
Have you ever looked out at this world, read or watched the news, and wondered where God is? Even when things are relatively okay here at home, it’s getting harder and harder to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pain and suffering of people around the world. We live in a world where the internet has enabled lightening fast communication and real time updates from the farthest flung places of the world. From hurricanes and blizzards and tornados and volcano eruptions (all of which have happened somewhere in the United States in the past few weeks), along with an immigration crisis along our southern border and rampant inflation here at home, to the Mexican and Central and South American drug cartels, to the Russian war with Ukraine, to the ongoing battle between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both sides of which are brutalizing the people of Nigeria, to political unrest in Iran, to the fall of one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, there’s bad news everywhere. And people are freezing and starving and suffering and dying.
It seems like for every fire we manage to put out somewhere in the world, four more crop up somewhere else. And if we put those out, three more crop up somewhere else. Why? Because something at the core of the human soul is broken. The Bible calls it sin. That’s what Jesus came to save us from. He came to save us from sin … the sin of others that hurts us, and our own sinful hearts that hurt us and others.
The question is, are we even paying attention? In Isaiah 64, the prophet gives voice to a desperate, lamenting prayer of the people. They’re exiles in a foreign land. Their homeland is destroyed. Jerusalem and the temple are heaps of rubble and smoking ruins. And the people cry out: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence … Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away … Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. Will you restrain yourself at these things, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?” (64:1, 5-6, 11-12).
The people are accusing God of being silent, of ignoring them in their plight and in their sin, and God’s reply is simply, “I said, ‘Here I am, here I am.” I haven’t been hiding, and I haven’t been silent. You haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been listening. We accuse God of hiding and refusing to speak. “you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities” (Is. 64:7). And God replies, “No, you aren’t paying attention. You aren’t listening. I’ve been at work and speaking all along, but you keep trying to do things YOUR way, coming to me on YOUR terms, instead of listening to me and seeking me.” The problem isn’t with God, it’s with us.
But what do we do? We deflect. We blame. We point fingers. It’s my parents fault. It’s my siblings fault. It’s my bosses fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s … anyone else’s fault. Ultimately, it’s God’s fault. God is silent. God is distant. God doesn’t care. God isn’t listening. God has turned his back. It goes right back to the fall in Genesis. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Ultimately, who is responsible before God? Adam and Eve. We are. Who sinned? We did. Sin is in the world because of human choice, and for no other reason. We have to stop blaming others and own up to the brokenness we’ve introduced into the world. We have to come to terms with the truth that we cannot dig ourselves out of the hole we have dug. We cannot clean up the mess we have made.
But God is not silent. We just don’t want to hear what God has to say. Look at V. 2. The word translated as rebellious here means stubborn, rigid, and never satisfied. We stubbornly refuse to listen to God. We stubbornly refuse to turn toward him. We insist that we know what is right and what is wrong for us, and that no one else can define that for us. Think about it – that attitude is at the heart of the fall in Genesis 3. What was the tree they ate from? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, right? In other words, we didn’t want to take God’s perspective on right and wrong anymore. We wanted to decide right and wrong for ourselves. And that’s what we do. We live in a world where everyone think they’re right, and anyone who sees things differently is wrong. The problem is we’re really good at fooling ourselves. We look in disgust at the person who causes an accident by driving too fast, conveniently ignoring our own tendency to drive above the speed limit. When everyone does what is right in their own eyes, chaos ensues, because there is no standard of right and wrong that applies equally to everyone, and every human being has a tendency to judge others and give themselves grace.
Even those of us who DO turn to God try to come to God on our own terms, not his. Look at Vv. 3-7. Instead of coming to God on God’s terms, we try make God come to us on our terms. Prayer and worship, even reading and studying and quoting scripture become attempts to manipulate and control God – to get God to do what we want him to do for us. If I go to church and tithe, God has to bless me the way I want God to bless me. If I raise my hands in worship and sing and sway, then God will bless me the way I want God to bless me. If I never miss communion and lead a Bible study, then God has to bless me the way I want God to bless me.
Others of us say, “Forget about the church. I can worship God better on a hike, or out on the water on my kayak. I’m the truly spiritual person.” And people on both sides of that divide worship God for our sakes, not because God is worthy of our worship. Whether we’re ignoring God completely and trying to fix things ourselves, or whether we’re coming to God while still trying to live for ourselves, we’re missing the point. Because God says, “I want your heart. I want a relationship with you. I want you to realize that I will do for you what you cannot do for yourselves, if you’ll just come to me. We cannot bypass submission to God with religious behavior.
Now, look at Vv. 8-12. Enter God’s judgment. You see, salvation and judgment go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. Real salvation has to deal with wrongs that have been done. Wrong has to be made right. That’s one of the points behind prisons, isn’t it? When someone gets out, we say they’ve “paid their debt to society.” When someone is sued, damages are sought for a wrong done. That’s the whole point of justice … wrongs are made right. So how does a God who loves unlovely people who have made a mess of things right the wrongs that have been done? By entering this world in human form – fully human and yet still fully God – by living for us the righteous life we cannot live, and by dying on our behalf with our sin placed on him. Jesus is God taking his justice out upon himself, in our place. And then offering us forgiveness and transformation in return. One way or another, justice will be meted out. It may not happen perfectly in this life.
Why? Because we are broken human beings with finite resources. But God will bring his perfect justice. Either Christ has taken your sins upon himself and died as their just punishment, or, if we reject him, if we spit on him and deny him, then that justice will be meted out on us by ourselves, without Christ’s death in our place.
So things are broken – this world is broken, every human heart and soul is broken, marred by sin, and God can be counted on to bring justice and set every wrong right. Where is the hope in that? Sounds like we’re all done for. We are, unless we come to him on HIS terms. And what are his terms? Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. The child is the way. The child is the ONLY way. The way to what? To salvation. To peace. To joy. To hope. Look at Vv. 13-25.
This is a picture of a world in which every wrong has been made right. A world so like this world that it can be called a world … heavens and earth … but a world so different that it can only be called a new world … new heavens and a new earth. A world so new that none of the pain and suffering and injustice of this world will even be remembered. The creator becomes the recreator. God has the power to banish sin and sorrow forever. I mean LOOK! Look at the characteristics of this new world!
V. 20. Grief will be gone. There will be no such thing as an untimely death. Parents will not mourn for children who have died. Spouses will not mourn for lovers who have died. Not only will we no longer experience separation from God, we won’t experience any separation from one another ever again. Someone one hundred years old will be “just a baby.”
V. 21. We will be able to actually enjoy the fruits of our labor. Those who build something or plant something will live to enjoy it. It won’t be something that only the next generation can see and enjoy.
I mean, think about it. Becky and I have been remodeling the house we live in for pretty much the full 24 years we have lived in it. I have no hope that I’ll be able to experience the joy of a fully completed house in need of no work. My only hope is that what we’ve done provides a solid foundation for whoever owns the house when we’re gone. Home ownership is an exercise in futility and frustration. So is work. We work our fingers to the bone building systems and products that the next person who has our position will come in and undue and recreate their own way.
Can you imagine getting to actually enjoy the fruits of your labors? Look at V. 23. No calamity. No futility or frustration. Nature itself will exist and be pacified. Look at V. 25. The wolf, lion and snake represent all of the devouring, ravenous, poisoning agents in the world, both within us and outside of us, in the world around us. Nature will not be our enemy, as it so often seems it is today. Nor will we be nature’s enemy, as we so often seem to be today. What a beautiful picture of where God wants to take us. If we’ll let him. If we’ll only humble ourselves, stop trying to do it our own way, and come to him on his terms. The child whose birth we celebrate every year, Jesus, the Christ, is the way. He is the only way.
Ever since he was a little boy, his parents had been promising that they would give him a beautiful car to drive when he turned 16. He even planned to park it in the family’s barn where it could stay warm and dry. Only first his dad would have to get rid of that old car sitting in the barn. He couldn’t wait for his dad to haul it off to the dump to make way for his dream car.
But when would that day come? When would that new car arrive? And when would his dad get rid of that old junky car under the tarp? Then one evening in early summer he heard strange sounds coming from that old barn. It sounded like power tools … a drill … a hammer. What was going on? Peering into the darkness he saw nothing but the stars overhead. And he noticed that a light was on in the barn. He walked into the warm night air, down the dirt path, and poked his head into the barn door.
When he saw the tarp, rolled up and left against the door, he excitedly thought, Was Dad finally getting rid of that junky old car? But then he suddenly looked and saw one of the most incredible sports cars in automotive history. It was a Corvette, but not just any Corvette. It was the coveted, beautiful, powerful 1963 Corvette 327 V8 with a split window, aluminum knock-off wheels, painted candy apple red.
So that was the car underneath the tarp all those years. He stood there stunned. It was always there, just getting ready for his father’s masterful work of restoration. At that moment his father looked up, his hands deep in the engine bay, and handed his son a socket wrench. With a broad smile, he said, “Come on, son. Grab a tool and let’s get this car ready.”
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create.” That is the invitation. Jesus is the way. Have you been ignoring God, refusing to listen? Will you come? Have you been madly trying to get God to come to you on your terms, instead of coming to him on his? Will you stop, and come? Because God wants to take you to a place you cannot, in your wildest dreams, imaging. And that is good news. Let us pray.