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Good morning, church. Please go with me to Isaiah, chapter 44. Thank you, Kallee, for preaching last week. What a wonderful gift it is, especially in our little church, to have so many capable teachers in our midst, willing to share their lives and thoughts with us.
And thank you as well to all of you who helped us move last weekend, who have helped with disaster relief, who help and serve so many people day by day. Small acts of kindness and care like that won’t be noticed hardly in this world, but those are the works of our Father, so those are the things which will last eternally. The things we think of as world history are brief and passing. God is writing his own book of all life, and it’s filled with remembrance of small acts of peace.
I want to ask a question this morning we will begin to answer today, but it’s going to take us several weeks, if not a lifetime, to flesh out. Maybe the simplest way I can say it is this: what makes a Christian? What makes a Christian?
I’m using the word Christian, Isaiah uses the word “servant of the Lord,” which is what I mean when I say Christian, because in Christianity we are seeking to follow Christ, who is the fulfillment of every promise Isaiah is making here, the new and better servant of God, the first person to live life as life was meant to be lived, as we all will live in his kingdom.
And I’m not asking how to start out as a Christian, that’s not complicated: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Our father doesn’t set up roadblocks to people becoming Christians, he calls our names when we are dead in our sins and raises us to life; he waits and watches for us finally to turn and seek him, he runs to us when we are far away, when we can’t even imagine that he would want to call us his child. I’m not asking about salvation, I’m asking about formation. Formation. What makes a Christian.
We’ve talked endlessly in evangelicalism about salvation, which is good, but we need to turn our attention to formation before we, too, pour out “rivers of grace without end” without ever issuing a call to discipleship. Constantly inviting people into a church without formation is like inviting people to a dinner table without serving food. Eventually, no matter how friendly everyone is and how good the conversation, they will begin to wonder what we’re all gathered here for, and where they can go to be fed.
What makes a Christian? Read with me, Isaiah 42:1-13, and then we are going to read 43:1-7. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
What makes a Christian? The short answer is, of course, the Holy Spirit forms us. It is the Spirit of God who makes Christians, who makes servants of God. The Spirit of God is what forms us, hovers over us in those quiet moments from which life springs. The first thing we know about the Spirit of God in scripture is that the Spirit brings quiet order to chaos, creates singing, crying, bounding, green and growing life in the midst and out of dead, dark, nothingness. This is what the Spirit of God has always done. This is what the Spirit of God does in people, too.
Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters in the very beginning of creation, filling them with life and vibrancy, the Spirit of God covers us, brings quiet order to our chaos and creates singing, bounding, green and growing life in the midst and out of our dead, dark, nothingness.
In this passage, we see, before any talk of the servant of God working in the world, in v.1, God says I uphold my servants, I put my Spirit on them. We’ve been talking for so long about God remaking the earth and the world, his kingdom come, I hope we haven’t forgotten that God wants to recreate us, too—his will be done. As with the earth, we are very far from the way we were created to be, so it’s hard even to imagine what the Spirit is making us to be.
Imagining a redeemed humanity, C. S. Lewis writes: “The dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is with the awe and the circumspection proper to [“this overwhelming possibility”], that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”
We spend so much time trying to make something of ourselves, make up our faces, shape our bodies, make our careers, sometimes we forget to pause and consider what the Spirit of God is making of us. But we should.
For the next several weeks we are going to talk about what the Spirit of God is making his servants to be, what he is recreating us to do. One, we see plainly in our text that Christians are made to be just. Servants of God are made to be just. And not in an aggressive or flashy sort of way, but quietly. V.2, “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,” and v.3, “a bruised reed he will not break, a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Not aggressive or flashy, but v.3, “faithfully.” “Faithfully bringing forth justice.”
Usually when we think of justice, we think of rulers, judges, and kings, and that’s certainly part of what Isaiah has in mind. He writes “the coastlands wait for his law,” envisioning a liberation from the rule of the cruel and conquering nations into which his people have been carried. The justice of the kingdom of God is political and societal. Christ is not king in some vague, spiritual way, but actually.
But even if you’re not a king or a judge, if you never have charge of anything or anyone more than yourself, you are still able to be just. Justice in the Bible is basically viewing and treating people the way God views and treats them. Humans tend to look down on some people and venerate others. Humans tend to be forgiving to some and hard on others. Humans have double standards, we play favorites, we have biases. God does not. God sees basically all of humanity as broken, but beloved, and equally so. You can’t impress him, and you can’t be bad enough that he’ll leave you or give you up as lost. You’re not better than the person next to you, and you’re equally deserving of human dignity and love. The person who says to God, “do you know who I am!?” And the person who says to God, “you don’t know me” are wrong in equal measure.
God’s servants are made to be like him in justice. Not to assume the wealthy are corrupt and soft while the poor are virtuous and hardy; not to honor the wealthy person over the poor, or the attractive person over the unattractive, or this race, or that level of education. We’re called to be just, and the more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more we are made to be just, the more equal everyone begins to seem, the more like us, the more like family, and when anyone or anything treats them unjustly, the more we are inspired to act to bring the Lord’s justice back into our community.
The Bible has a lot to say about justice. It’s one of the central themes of the Bible, usually mentioned together with righteousness, like in this passage. V.1 says God’s servants are just, and v.6—the very next stanza—says he has called them to be righteous.
In our culture, and especially in our church culture, we tend to separate the two concepts—justice and righteousness—but we shouldn’t. The Bible certainly doesn’t. Justice in scripture is seen as the natural result of righteousness, the effect righteousness has on the people who come into contact with it. As James writes, “I will show you my faith by my works.” Trying to be righteous without doing justice is like trying to be a pro athlete by watching the games on TV. You may know the rules enough to play a game, but the longer you remain a spectator, an occasional participant, the more you’ll lack the conditioning and the discipline to really be involved.
I’ve seen a lot of people out seeking justice in the streets recently, because in New Orleans our brokenness is on the surface right now. It’s visible. There are trees down and roofs leaking, people living without power and water, and not some people way over there who probably deserve their fate, but our neighbors. So I’ve seen people out helping their neighbors pick up the pieces of their homes, helping the elderly lift trees and debris. Crossing those racial and class lines out in the streets a little more. Giving grace, having patience.
But eventually we’ll become satisfied with the injustices and hardships people are experiencing; we’ll cite reasons for why this or that is broken, and why we don’t or can’t help. We are far too easily pleased with the brokenness of this world. We will need reminding that hate is not the opposite of love, but apathy is, uncaring. As servants of God we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to see them as ourselves, as equally broken as we are and equally worthy of love and dignity. This is the result of righteousness, and it’s not secondary to the gospel, it’s part of how Christ, himself, summarized the teachings of all Scripture.
He has told you already what is good. It’s not that we need to seek God’s guidance or hear his voice on this—what’s lacking is not God telling us to seek justice around us, the only thing lacking is our obedience. We are the man who has been told to love his neighbor, and instead of going and doing, we decide to exclude and respond, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s an evil question. Humankind is your neighbor; go and seek justice.
Christians are made to be just, one. My second point is this: Christians are made to sing. The servants of the Lord are made to sing. In v.10 we read, “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth.” So it’s not just the justice of the Lord upon which the coastlands wait, but his song, too, is meant to ring out from the ends of the earth. Praise to the Lord.
Christians are called to sing, and the more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more we are made to sing. If you study the history of the people of God and the Church universal through the ages, in nearly every place and time when people have desired to praise God, they’ve used music to do it. And interestingly, almost every major reform movement in church history has come simultaneously with a revival of hymnology, new songs being sung to the Lord.
There are so many reasons for this, and I’ll mention only one: music crosses every boundary and people. I think of the Christmas night in 1944 where all the shelling stopped across the lines, and from both sides of the lines came a chorus, in German, French, and English, of Silent Night. I think of church bells ringing out over entire cities. I think of every church service I’ve been in where I didn’t speak the language, and I could understand nothing of what was said, but I could understand the music and take part in the praise. Because music crosses every boundary, and sinks into every understanding, it’s like the language of the heavens we see spoken in the book of Acts and elsewhere, where God speaks, and every person from every nation and language group is able to understand. In my mind, heaven speaks in song, and the redeemed earth will be filled with music. We are made to sing.
The idea of a new song here doesn’t mean we can’t sing old songs or hymns, it speaks instead to worshipping God with our creativity, recognizing the newness of his grace each day, the unprecedented nature of his redemption—he is like no one and nothing that’s come before.
And a new song isn’t just music, just as worship isn’t just music. The more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more our hearts sing and exult when we give, or serve, or bow down, read his word and fellowship. His new song is sung through every aspect of our liturgies when we gather, every act of quiet love and service to God as we go. New songs begin to rise up in us at the newness of the mercies of God in the world.
I would encourage you to sing in worship, even if your voice is terrible, because that’s a chance to take part in in the songs being sung already in heaven, and into eternity. Lifting up our voices in worship is another act, like making peace and justice, that will be included in God’s book and last into eternity.
Christians are made to be just, we’re made to sing, and lastly from our passage today, Christians are made to be fearless. Christians are made to be fearless.
43:1: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Christians are made to be fearless, and the more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more “his perfect love casts out fear,” and the more we are able, as the apostle Peter writes, to “not fear anything that is frightening.”
We live right now in a frightening time and place, and there has been much talk of late, in the midst of the pandemic and the hurricane, about how Christians are made to be fearless. I would caution you, though, because this true, biblical encouragement that we don’t need to be afraid has been mixed with a foolish, American individualistic bravado that takes unnecessary risks and puts people and entire groups into unnecessarily desperate situations.
There is an enormous difference between taking risks out of an abundance of concern for the people you’re trying to serve and taking risks out of a desire to be considered faithful, brave, and fearless by the people around you. In my mind, it’s the same difference between those in the early church who sold land to give to the poor, and Ananias and Sapphira who sold it to be seen as selfless and righteous, to be considered among the leadership of the early church.
There is a line between fearless and foolish, and that line is usually determined by your heart and the safety of the people in your care. The book of Proverbs says, “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” And again, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” And again, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”
Last Friday, a team from our church went to a lady’s house in our community and climbed on top of houses with chainsaws, pulling heavy trunks of trees off of these houses. It was not safe, and I didn’t feel safe doing it, but I knew it needed to be done, and I knew no one else would be there to help this lady, so it was a risk I decided to take. But we didn’t do the whole job. We left part of it, because I thought we would probably be injured if we tried to get to it, or further damage the house.
Phil and I both have preached the gospel at times and in places where it was illegal, and we have both held our silence at times and in places where we understood the lives of the people in our care to be in immediate danger. You aren’t brave if you ignore advice and operate in a reckless and careless way. Proverbs says that’s foolish. And you aren’t brave if you blow past understanding both sides of an issue in order to speak your opinion, which is right in your own eyes; the Bible says that’s foolish.
The fearlessness Isaiah encourages here, and Peter encourages elsewhere is a fearlessness in the face of terrifying things. They were living under a violent, oppressive foreign rule. Worshipping the Lord was illegal and punishable by death. These are real dangers. Knowing the danger, recognizing fully the situation, they worshipped for the sake of the Lord, and out of love for the people around them.
I find myself as a father teaching caution and fearlessness together, and desiring both for my son. Don’t jump from 20 feet up, you’ll hurt yourself. But yes, do try to read that word even though you’re convinced you’re going to fail—you probably will, and it will be hard, but be brave, young one. Hard things are so often the things worth doing.
Some people talk a big game about fearlessness in a fight, or in the face of things like the virus or the hurricane. Maybe you’re walking through the COVID ward, no mask, high-fiving people. Maybe you’re the first in the tree with the chainsaw, but you don’t want to have that hard emotional conversation with your friend, or try to reconcile with your family. You don’t want to take that day off to rest or worship when you know it will displease your employers. You don’t want to apply for that job, because you’re afraid of the rejection. That’s where we need bravery right now in our divided and frenetic society. You need to be brave for your community, for your families, for the people around you, not for your own bravado.
Just as righteousness comes with justice, and justice comes with righteousness, so fearlessness, for it to be of God, has to come together with wisdom, or so often it’s just reckless.
My friends, we are called to be servants of God, but we aren’t called in our own strength. Everything God calls us to do, he also empowers us to do, and we are dependent upon him. The Spirit is making us Christian. We are being formed as worshippers of God each day, each day becoming more and more like the perfect servant of the Father, Jesus Christ.
I would invite you, if you are not saved, to confess and believe in him who can recreate you, bring order from your chaos and fill you with life. I would invite you to call upon the spirit to form you, to make you just, to make you sing, and to cast out all fear.