Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 12, 2008)
“On This Mountain” (Isaiah 25:6-9)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The prophet Isaiah in today’s Old Testament text tells us about a mountain and a feast that will take place there: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation." (Isaiah 25:6-9)
Jerusalem was situated on a mountain. It was called Mount Zion. The temple was there. God was graciously present for the people there. One author described the temple mount this way: “Terrace upon terrace its courts rose, till, high above the city, within the enclosure of marble cloisters, cedar-roofed and richly ornamented, the Temple itself stood out a mass of snowy marble and of gold, glittering in the sunlight.” (Edersheim) You have to wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he said in the Sermon of the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matt. 5:14)
A city on a hill
Ronald Reagan once called our country “a shining city on a hill.” Many other presidents and presidential candidates have since used that idea in their speeches and debates. John Kerry called America a “beacon of hope and source of inspiration for people everywhere.” After 9-11, George Bush said that our nation was targeted for attack because we are “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”
This idea of our nation being a “a shining city on a hill” is taken from a sermon by John Winthrop, a Puritan who settled in Massachussetts in 1630 and who served as governor of the colony for many years. Winthrop probably had in mind the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop and the rest of the Puritans believed that they were creating a holy community for God here in America and that God would give special favor to them for doing so. It seems as though this idea has been fostered over the years. Many people in our nation today believe that the United States has “most favored nation” status with God.
It’s hard to be that optimistic today, isn’t it? Wall Street had its worst week since the Great Depression. Greed and covetous desires have caused huge financial institutions to crumble. People are worrying about their retirement plans, since so many are funded by stocks and bonds. Gas prices are still high. We’re still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict with Iran looms over the horizon. Other nations such as China are quickly challenging our own place of prominence. There is much worry and anxiety in our land today.
Certainly God has blessed our nation. Whether God has favored us over any other land is up for debate. Putting “In God We Trust” on our money and saying “one nation under God” in the pledge is no guarantee that God will continue to bless us. Besides, which God are we talking about? Most people in our nation today would argue that we all really worship the same God. We just call him ... or “her” ... by different names. But God doesn’t leave us with that option. In Isaiah 42:8, he says, “I am Yahweh; that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” And Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Isaiah words from today’s text were written during a time of unrest. Foreign empires were expanding and competing for prominence. It was a time of military conflicts and alliances between nations and kings. One king after another ruled in Judah and Israel. Some were good kings. Others were bad. Only a few did was right in the eyes of the Lord. The northern Kingdom of Israel was facing decline and imminent disaster. The southern kingdom of Judah was wealthy and prosperous (Is. 2:7), yet also vulnerable. The people failed to live according to God’s holy standard (Is. 5:24). They lived in open defiance and debauchery: “They parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” (Is. 3:9) Their religious life was idolatrous and syncretistic ... that is, they mixed the worship of Yahweh with other false gods. The descendants of Abraham took for granted their special position as God’s own special people ... as God’s one and only “most favored nation.” People cared less for their neighbor and more for their own well-being. Rulers were influenced by special interest groups (1:23). It was all about power and position. Greed and corruption were rampant. “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.” (Is 1:23) They “acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of his right!” (5:23) The prophet warned over and over again that their wealth and riches were about to be swept away. “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.” (Is. 5:9)
Things aren’t all that different today, are they? Let me make this clear before I go on: I’m not saying that God has sent all our current problems to punish our nation. But our problems should cause us to reflect on the seriousness of our sins and the consequences that they do indeed bring. And we should not just point the finger at others ... at our politicians and others in high positions. We each have shared in the guilt of our nation’s sins. We must acknowledge the time when we have not lived up to God’s holy standards. There are times when we have paraded our sin and have not been ashamed of what we have done. We have taken God’s mercy for granted. There are times when we have neglected the needs of our neighbor. We have been silent when we should have spoken out against injustice and done what is good and righteous by defending those who cannot speak up for themselves, especially the unborn.
Jerusalem, the city on Mount Zion, was eventually defeated. The Babylonians came in and toppled it and the temple, too. This was God’s punishment for their perpetual unbelief and willful disobedience of his commandments. The shroud of death hung over them. They were disgraced and rebuked by those who saw their ruin. And the veil of death and disgrace hangs over us, too, because of our unbelief and disobedience.
A feast on a mountain
But although Jerusalem was defeated and disgraced, the prophet Isaiah promised a feast on Mount Zion. A feast of rich food. A feast of well-aged wine. The veil of death would be removed. The covering of death that is cast over all people would be taken away. Death would be swallowed up forever. All tears will be wiped away. There will be no more disgrace for those who trust in the Lord.
That feast was prepared on a small outcropping on Mount Zion called Calvary. There, on Mount Calvary, our Lord Jesus died for the sins of the world. In his Holy Supper, he gives the rich food of his body to eat. From his side flowed the blood which now flows with wine in every chalice when this Feast is celebrated.
Not far from Calvary, our Lord Jesus was buried in a tomb and three days later rose to life again. When the stone was rolled away, the veil of death was removed. Death was swallowed up forever. The shame and the disgrace of our sin was placed upon Jesus our sinless Savior and was taken away forever in his death and resurrection.
The veil of death and disgrace is taken away, and now we are given new garments to wear. Christ Jesus is the Bridegroom, and we are invited to his wedding feast and given new, clean wedding garments to wear ... the robes of Christ’s own righteousness which covers our sin and assures us that we are forgiven. We dare not presume to remain at the feast without those garments. If we think we deserve a place at this feast because of any goodness in ourselves, then we will be cast out into the outer darkness. Instead, with repentant trust and with the eyes of faith, we look to the Crucified Christ and say, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” He is the one who invites us to the feast. He is the one who provides us with a covering. He is the one who declares us worthy to be in his presence. He is the one who feeds us with his rich feast of forgiveness and everlasting life.
This life is uncertain. The times in which we live cause us anxiety. And so, no matter how many candidates tell you that they offer “Change we can believe in” ... no matter how many candidates say that it’s all about “Country first” ... no matter what the politicians say, let’s not place our trust and hope in this nation which has been called a “shining city on a hill.” Yes, it is a beacon of freedom. Yes, it is a source of inspiration for many. We love our country, but her shine has become a bit tarnished.
That’s why it’s important to remember that we have a better country awaiting us. A perfect one. An eternal one. An eternal kingdom, bought with the price of the blood of the King. Jesus is the only One in whom we believe. Jesus is the One who is first in our hearts and lives. Calvary is the mountain to which we look for true hope and true freedom. And the Church is the true “city on the hill” which now shines the light of Christ . So “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)