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Isaiah 16: While We Were Yet Enemies
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 16 as we continue through the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah’s a book about the fall and the failings of the nation of Judah. It’s a story of humanity’s sin, and in spite of all we’ve done wrong, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. Our future life everlasting is not in some far away heaven, but here on earth, together with God and everything restored to the way it was meant to be. God’s kingdom will be here; his kingdom already is here, just not yet fully.
We started this series talking about the sin of the world, sin meaning the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be—and last week we talked about how God is reversing sin, bringing what the Bible calls peace, shalom, the distance closed, so that we, and all of creation will be restored back to our original purpose; we will be made whole and right. We need to learn both to long for the world as it will be and to participate in revealing that world in word and deed to our broken world.
Last week we talked about the tools God is using to bring about his kingdom, the ways and means of the Lord. He doesn’t use the same tools the enemy uses to do his work, or even the means we use to establish kingdoms here on earth. We wage war, conquer, privilege one group over another, gather wealth and power until an entire people bend to the will of one or a few. God isn’t going to establish his kingdom that way. He isn’t going to use death against us, or violence, or oppression to establish his rule and reign.
The Lord uses things like natural consequence, at times, to allow us to experience the effects of our own sin, which causes death when it’s fully grown—just like we here at our church often wait until a person hits some sort of rock bottom before we can help truly. The Lord also uses things like time, and memory to reverse the effects of sin on the world.
Today, we are going to do a deep dive into one of the ways the Lord is establishing his kingdom here on earth, one of the tools he uses—I’m going to spend the whole of my time this morning speaking of the hospitality of the Lord.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 16, starting with verse 3. [Isaiah 16:3-5]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.
Hospitality is a word which has been hijacked in our culture. We here in the American South brag on our Southern hospitality, but in the biblical sense, this is one of the least hospitable places I’ve known. Most of the time in New Orleans when you hear the word used, people are talking about the hospitality industry, hotels and that sort of thing, but in Isaiah’s time, hotels were seen as the furthest thing possible from hospitality. In Isaiah’s day, a person in your midst staying at a hotel meant hospitality had utterly failed.
You see, in Isaiah’s day, travelers would come into a town, and as they interacted with the people there, they would expect to be invited into someone’s home to eat dinner with them and stay the night. Hotels were pretty much brothels and wine houses, like the saloons you see portrayed in country Westerns. It would have been seen as a shame on the whole town if a family wound up at the hotel.
Hospitality in the biblical sense means showing love to strangers, which usually looked like inviting them to share your meal, share your table. In fact, by the time the word hospitality is being used in Jesus’s day, it was literally a compound of the words for love and stranger, so if we were to translate it directly, we would say hospitality is stranger-love. In our passage today, and throughout scripture, we can see that God’s hospitality, his stranger-love, is a powerful means of establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
The passage we just read is nestled in a broader passage pronouncing judgement on the nation of Moab, which was to the east of the nation of Judah, across the dead sea from where Isaiah lives. If the nation of Judah could be said to have a rival, an arch-enemy, it was Moab. Moab was founded from the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and throughout the entire existence of the two peoples, Judah and Moab had been at near-constant war. Moab once deceived the people of God and refused them safe passage and hospitality. And Moab worshipped a god whose rituals revolved around child sacrifice, something our God says over and over again he finds detestable.
So finding a passage in Isaiah which pronounces judgement on Moab shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure when Isaiah read this part of his book in the temple, there were amens and cheers from the congregation. What should surprise us, and what would have made his original audience fall into an awkward silence, is the part we just read about how God wants his people to respond to the fall of Moab, this immoral, rival nation.
God tells his own people to welcome the refugees of Moab’s destruction, and not just welcome them. He tells them in v.4 that they are to be a shelter to the Moabites for the rest of time, until the Lord returns. That word shelter literally means to hide, which is why he’s talking about creating shade like night at the height of noon. Hide them from anyone who wants to harm them, God tells them. Be to them a fortress, a hiding place, just as God is to his people in the Psalms. And he says to hide them among yourselves, not just for a few days, or a few years, but until he returns. Basically, even though the Moabites are enemies of God’s people, God wants his people to welcome them into their nation, to incorporate the refugees from Moab into the people of God.
Just as we talked a few weeks ago about Isaiah’s picture of the kingdom of God filled with peace, music, and the presence of the Lord, so now we get a picture of the kingdom of God being one that welcomes the stranger. God’s is establishing his kingdom using hospitality, and his kingdom is filled with stranger-love.
And the mention of king David in v.5, the great king of Israel’s golden age, is a gentle reminder that the people of God should have already learned this lesson about God’s desire to welcome the stranger, even his enemies. You see, king David’s grandmother was Ruth, whom many of you may know from the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth, herself, was a Moabite, from this enemy nation, until she makes a decision to worship the God of Israel and live among the people of God—then she’s enfolded into the nation, literally redeemed by a kinsman of her former husband. Ruth, who is in the line of Jesus Christ, himself, the messiah who is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and purposes. So in Israel’s past when the nation was at its peak, and in the coming kingdom of God, strangers and enemies are welcomed into the people of God, and loved, called family.
At first glance, our passage this morning may seem out of place in the progression of thought in Isaiah. He went from talking about the sins of the people around him, to the sins of his own people, the the coming destruction of his people to the promise of restoration, and then we talked last week about the ways and means God is using to establish his kingdom on earth. But this passage isn’t out of place, because hospitality, stranger-love, is central to God’s plan to establish his kingdom.
You see, the Bible teaches that there is no person who has ever been born into the kingdom of God. If we are citizens of the kingdom, we were welcomed into it from the outside. In the New Testament book of Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “while we were yet enemies” God invited us into his kingdom. And we weren’t just enemies, Paul reminds us, but sinners as well. He writes, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners” God entered into death itself to give us life in his kingdom.
You have to realize, in the scriptural narrative, each one of us is a stranger and a refugee, a foreigner to the coming kingdom of God, this kingdom filled with peace and plenty and music. If God did not love and welcome the stranger, even his enemies, none of us would have any part in his coming kingdom. It’s because of the stranger-love of God that any of us have a part in anything God is doing in the world today, and anything he is doing in the future.
Author James K.A. Smith helpfully connects this idea of Christians being refugees to the common metaphor of our lives being a walk or a journey. It’s common in our time and place to glorify the journey—“the road is life,” Jack Kerouac famously writes. We insist there is no destination for this journey of life; we say, “the journey is our destination.” But that kind of idea only works if the journey is some sort of privileged, pleasant vacation. If, however, you’re a refugee, fleeing a country of origin to go to some sort of sanctuary, you want there to be a destination, and you want to arrive at that destination as quickly as you can. The Bible says, this Christian walk we are living is a journey as refugees, starting in the nations we now live in, but journeying toward the kingdom of God.
Everyone in the kingdom of God is a refugee in this life, a stranger. Discipleship is a process of learning how to live in exile. It’s God’s stranger-love, his hospitality, that allows us unto the kingdom and binds us together. The church is a nation of refugees, a mixed-race adoptive family—we all came from somewhere, but we are all now one because of the love of the Father.
So what can we do to participate in the hospitality of the Lord? What’s our part, in loving the stranger, establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
One, we need to understand ourselves as refugees, as foreigners in the world. We need to understand that the United States is our nation of origin, not our home. This is where we started, but this world is not our destination. The author of Hebrews goes so far as to say that to have faith in God means having an understanding of yourself as being a stranger and an exile here on earth.
He writes, of the faithful people of God in the Old Testament, “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” We need to understand ourselves as refugees, as foreigners in the world, and in our own nation.
Don’t get so comfortable here in this nation that you excuse and dismiss the sins which our culture excuses and dismisses—quarreling, love of money, imperialism, and racial self-interest are at the heart of our culture. Don’t get so comfortable here that you allow American culture to dictate how you act and think. In your decisions and opinions, start by remembering our destination in the kingdom of God and remembering that we are foreigners in this land.
I’ve met a lot of people who seem to be searching for something in this life to give them meaning and purpose, or some kind of balm to offer forgiveness or healing from past wrongs. They’re still moving in the journey, but they have no destination. And I’ve met a lot of people who searched for a while and now have given up. If life is a journey, they’re stuck on the side of the road, just waiting it seems. If you’re searching, or if you’re stuck, you need to know: our destination is not in this world. We are meant for another. There is meaning, purpose, forgiveness, and healing in Christ. Orient yourself toward Christ and his kingdom.
Two, we are able to participate in the stranger-love of God by loving the strangers and foreigners in our midst and advocating for them. The word sanctuary has two meanings: one, we use the word to describe the room we are in right now: a place dedicated to holy things, to worship and service. And the word sanctuary also means shelter and protection. The word acquired this second meaning during the enlightenment era, when churches allowed foreigners and even criminals to stay for a number of days to pray at the altar, and while they were in the church, no person could enter and take them away.
If we are, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God which is in heaven, then the national boundaries we’ve drawn on earth should matter to us far less than God’s call to us to welcome the stranger. In God’s call to Judah to accept the refugees from Moab, to shade them and hide them from anyone who seeks to do them harm, we should hear a call to welcome the foreigner in our midst as well, to advocate for the refugee, and to shelter them in our midst against anyone who might wish to hurt or take advantage of them.
As v.3 says in our passage, in the kingdom of heaven, refugees are given counsel, granted justice, and sheltered. If we are to participate in the works of the kingdom here in our city, we should do the same for the refugees and outcasts in our midst. When you speak to friends and family about foreigners in our community, do they hear you speaking of God’s hospitality, his love for the stranger through which he welcomed us into his kingdom? Do you speak about how God’s kingdom is peopled entirely by those who arrived with nothing but sin and need, and yet were given an inheritance and called sons and daughters of God? How much of your opinion on immigration to the United States is formed by societal opinion and economic consideration, and how much is formed by considering the love of God for the refugee and the stranger?
Greg Wilton, who started his ministry here at this church, heads our denomination’s refugee ministries in Clarkston, GA. He does there what we attempt to do here with people experiencing homelessness in our city: they create friendships, make disciples, find housing and jobs. I look at his work there, and I see the sheltering Isaiah is commanding in our passage: welcoming the stranger, giving counsel, granting justice, sheltering. I pray the love of God for the stranger would permeate our churches, cities, and society.
Three, we are able to participate in God’s hospitality by inviting people into our own table fellowship. The principle means of offering hospitality throughout the Bible is by inviting a person to eat a meal with you. Food is how God’s stranger-love comes down into our day-to-day lives. If you want to offer friendship to a person, offer him a meal. Communion in the Christian church started this way—as a meal. Inviting people to church was an invitation to come eat dinner with your friends and family at your house.
Still today, offering a simple invitation to come and eat a meal with you, to come to church with you—not out of obligation or because the person is a project, but because you actually want to welcome them into your social circles—can go a long way toward loving the stranger. An invitation to come and eat, to come and take part, is the most simple and human way you can tell someone, “I don’t know you, but I love you,” and exhibit the hospitality, the stranger-love of God.
Four, we are able to participate in the stranger-love of God by sharing the good news of God’s coming kingdom among the nations. There is a reason why God desires his people to welcome the stranger in their midst: it’s in v.5. God is calling people of every nation to himself, to dwell in the house of God forever, to eat at his table. His hospitality, his stranger-love, his establishment of the kingdom, it’s all born out of his desire to reconcile the world back to himself and dwell in peace in the land with his children.
Friends, we are strangers, refugees, whom God welcomed into his kingdom while we were yet enemies—and he eagerly desires to welcome us.
Jesus teaches, our God waits and watches on the road, awaiting the day you might come home from the foreign land and dwell with him in peace. In every time and place, we have the privilege of taking part in God’s work of calling his children to come home to him, and his work in reconciling people and communities back to him. My invitation to you today is to admit that this is not your home, that you are a refugee, but you have a destination. For those who don’t know him, who feel like a stranger to God, he loves you still. He wants to share his table with you and welcome you home.