Staunton Mennonite Church
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
God’s purpose will prevail. How can we align ourselves with his purpose?
It is good to be back in the Shenandoah Valley after spending a few days back home in Ohio. I enjoyed being back on my family’s farm for a few days. It felt good to be outside and work with my hands after being shut in a classroom for the last four months. The first day I worked on the farm, I came in for the night at around 8:00 pm and I sat down and I was tired. And I looked at the clock and I thought to myself, what is wrong with me? Why am I so tired at 8:00? Well the answer to that question came pretty quickly to me. I hadn’t worked that hard since I was home last year for Christmas.
For the last three years Sonya and I have done basically the same thing at Christmas time. She has about two weeks off work so we have the chance to go spend Christmas with our family and friends in Ohio. It is a good opportunity to catch up with people we haven’t seen in a while. Each year I have had the opportunity to sit down and have breakfast with an old friend of mine over Christmas break. When I go home I make sure to sit down for a few hours with my 89-year-old friend Richard. Richard is a retired pastor with more energy and passion than many people half his age. We get together to talk about the church, we get together to talk about family. We get together just to see each other and to hold each other up in prayer.
So when I got home I gave Richard a call. And he said, “Kevin, I’ve been expecting your call!” Our breakfast together has become something that we expect. And we can say that each year, history repeats itself.
Now when Richard and I meeting for breakfast each year is more of a tradition than a repetition of history. But as we look at history, we find many repetitions. And included in the repetitions of history are repetitions in salvation history. As we look at the stories of the Old Testament, we find this repetition: God creates humanity, humanity sins against God, bad things happen to humanity, humanity repents for their sinfulness, God intervenes on behalf of humanity, God and humanity live in harmony, then humanity sins against God again. This cycle began with the first humans and continues even today. This cycle of sinfulness, repentance, and forgiveness has played a major role in the history of the world.
Our scriptures for today reveal some of this cyclical nature of history. Our OT scripture reveals a story about how God has saved his people, and the NT scripture reveals a story about how God will save his people again. By looking at these scriptures, we will see that in spite of this cyclical pattern of history, God’s purpose will prevail.
Our passage from Isaiah is a praise to God for the deeds that he has done. In particular, this is a praising of God for bringing the people out of the land of Egypt. The author of Isaiah makes sure to specify that it was none other than God that delivered the people from their oppressors in Egypt.
But if you read on past our scripture for today, the very next verse, verse 10 says, “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit”. Here we find the cyclical nature of history. God saves his people. He even performs miraculous deeds in this instance. But the people rebelled and grieved God. Then bad things began to happen to the Israelites. Now I don’t believe that God just caused these bad things to happen to Israel, but the Israelites made some bad decisions, choosing to live lives of immorality and worshiping other gods. And the lives that the Israelites had once enjoyed were now gone. Because they thought they knew better than God, the Israelites suffered the consequences of their decision.
It has been said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. As I look at the world in which we live, I am smacked in the face with the reality that we are like the Israelites living during the time when Isaiah 63 was written. Our society today is reliving the history of humanity. So many people have turned their backs on God, on his precepts and commandments. The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, teaches us that killing is wrong. Yet our world is full of murder, hate crimes, war, and pain. The Decalogue teaches us that we are to honor our father and mother, yet so many children are using and abusing drugs and alcohol, having sexual relations at early ages, and even bringing children into this world before they themselves are old enough to vote. This doesn’t sound very “honoring” to me. The Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 reads, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Are we loving the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and might?
Like Israel, we have neglected to keep the precepts and commandments of God. And like Israel we are suffering for it. Look at the front page of the newspaper and you will see that we are suffering for not keeping these laws. But I don’t believe that the war, the death, the poverty, or any of the negative things that we experience today are because God is punishing us for not keeping his commandments. This is not a punishment, but it is the result of us not keeping God’s commandments.
Let me say this first. I believe in God. I wouldn’t be standing up here today if I didn’t believe in God. But even if I did not believe in God, I still think that we as the human race would benefit by living according to the commandments of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ. If we lived in a world where love had replaced hate, if we lived in a world where generosity had replaced selfish ambitions, if we lived in a world where trust had replaced fear, this world would be a far better place. I think that many of God’s commandments and the teachings of Jesus are not in the Bible because God doesn’t want us to have fun. The commandments and teachings are in the Bible because God loves us and wants to see the best for all of humanity. They are for our own good.
Jesus was born into this system of dominance and power, a fallen world. And in Jesus’ day there was a king by the name of Herod. Herod was a Jew that was put in place by the Roman Empire because he would not resist the Romans. He is what is called a puppet king, someone else was pulling the strings and he was just doing what he was told to do.
But this position was pretty sweet for Herod. Even though he didn’t have absolute power, he still had the power to rule over the Jews and make them do things for him. And Herod wasn’t about to give up this position if he didn’t have to. And when he heard that there was another king born in Bethlehem, Herod took action. He had all of the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed. A terrible tragedy that could have been prevented if Herod would have upheld the commandments of God to not kill.
But Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod would attempt to kill his son Jesus and that he should take Mary and the boy and flee to Egypt. And Joseph does just that. He takes his young family and moves so that they can be safe. Though Jesus is born into a system of sin and death, God’s purpose is able to prevail.
Think of everything that had to go right for Jesus to be born, to grow to a mature age, and to enter into a time of ministry in Palestine. Think of how many times people wanted to kill him, but God delivered Jesus because his time to die had not yet come. Because Jesus was working with God rather than working against God, Jesus was able to fulfill his purpose.
There is a purpose to life. God has a purpose and his purpose will prevail. Now we all have our own ideas of what our own purpose in life is. For some people their life purpose is to acquire as much money as possible. For others it is to be successful in the business world. For still others their life purpose is to raise a family. Now some of these purposes align well with God’s purpose, some of them do not. Those that do not align with God’s purpose, we call that sin. Those whose life purpose align with God’s purpose, we call that faithfulness.
Those who are living lives of sin, living lives that don’t align with God’s purposes are just jumping into that cyclical pattern of sinfulness. They are the ones that have not learned from history and are therefore destined to repeat it. When your life purpose does not align with God’s purpose you are like the Israelites that sinned against God and experienced pain and suffering because they made decisions based on what they thought was best. When your life purpose does not align with God’s purpose you are like Herod who though being king was so important that he slaughtered innocent children. No the sin might be different, but sin is still sin. When we seek to fulfill a life purpose that does not align with God’s purpose, we are sinning.
But regardless of whether our life purpose aligns with God’s purpose or not, God’s purpose will prevail. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but God’s purpose will prevail. So here we have two options to assure that our life purpose will be successful. We can either try to change God’s purpose to align with our life purpose, or we can align our life purpose with God’s to assure that our purpose will prevail. And I hope you all realize how silly is sounds to try to change God’s purpose.
To say that God never changes his mind is a bit of an overstatement. But God’s purpose seems to me to have been pretty consistent. God’s purpose is the redemption of creation. The redemption of sinful humanity to himself. When we see Jesus praying in the New Testament, Jesus does not try to change God’s plan, though he does try to alter it at times. When Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays, “Lord if this cup can pass from me, please let it pass.” Jesus is asking God to allow him to avoid crucifixion if at all possible. Jesus was trying to alter God’s plan to fulfill God’s purpose. But Jesus tacks on this phrase at the end, “But not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus realizes that he needs to align his purpose with God’s if he wants to be faithful, if he wants to see his purpose fulfilled.
We also see this in the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus is teaching his disciples how to pray. It has been said that the Lord’s Prayer is not about telling God what to do, but rather about being open to God’s leading. That line, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” isn’t about getting God to endorse and support your purpose, but to align our purpose with God’s.
When I have my breakfast with Richard, he always reaches back into his vault of memories and share with me stories about his call to ministry. If Richard is almost 90 now, that means he was born just before 1920. And Richard was in his 20’s when he first sensed a call to ministry. But how did the Mennonite Church call its pastors in the 1940’s? By the lot. I believe Richard’s name was in the lot two times before he was finally selected. He was about 45 years old when he began his first pastorate. And for those 25 years, Richard sensed a call to ministry, but he was never chosen for the ministry.
Richard was faithful to his calling. He aligned himself with God’s purpose. And for the first 45 years of his life, God’s purpose for Richard was for him to be involved in roles other than that of a pastor. And when the time came, Richard was called to the ministry. And Richard has been successful because he aligned himself with God’s purposes.
We have two options. We can either set our goals and develop our life purpose according to what we want, to what we think will make us happy, or we can align our life purpose with God’s purpose and assure that we will be successful in working for God’s kingdom. Our selfish ambitions in developing life purposes will lead us into the path of sinfulness, just like that of the Israelites and Herod. Or we can learn from history and avoid repeating it. But as for me, I am going to follow the lead of Richard. I will align my purpose with that of God. And even if things don’t develop at the rate that I would have them develop, I will remain faithful to God’s purpose. I will work to bring the message of redemption for God’s creation to the world.