Sunday, February 28, 2010


Our text this morning is another oracle about one of the nations. Tyre was a city-state north of Judah and on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. This oracle is like the others. In those, Jesus points out the sins of the nations and then declares that He will hold them accountable. Punishment is coming. He does the same here. Tyre’s claim to fame was its commerce. Tyre was an economic power house. And it’s that which led it into sin. Jesus noticed and decided to act.

Listen as I read Isaiah 23.

Tyre was the center of commerce. It sent its ships all over. Isaiah calls it ‘the merchant of the nations.’ It conducted trade with Egypt and Cyprus, which were relatively close. But it also sent its ships to the other end of the Mediterranean Sea which is where Tarshish probably was. Out of this commerce came great wealth. Out of that great wealth came great power. So, Isaiah writes, ‘Who has purposed this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth?’ Tyre’s merchants were somebodies, people who were honored throughout the region. In that sense, they were princes. But then there’s that other interesting phrase, ‘bestower of crowns’. The merchants of Tyre decided who would rule the nations of some of their trading partners. They bestowed crowns. Economic power leads to political power. But then, Isaiah tells us, this all led to pride. If humility is knowing yourself well, knowing your gifts and your limitations accurately, then pride is the lack of all that. And what does that lead to? Listen to these words from another prophet, Ezekiel. ‘Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord GOD: “… your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god…”’ Pride in one’s abilities leads to a sense of being like God – though no one, today, would say that in so many words. But this fruit of pride puts such a person in competition with Jesus. Because of his pride, this person is trying to steal glory from Jesus. But Jesus sees that for the evil that it is and responds. In Tyre’s case, He responded with punishment. So, Isaiah writes, ‘The LORD of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth.’ And that explains the opening words of this oracle. ‘Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for Tyre is laid waste, without house or harbor!’ Isaiah prophesies the coming destruction. Jesus is responding to Tyre’s pride.

I think that it is helpful to note that Tyre is much like Babylon. Both were in the process of conquering their part of the world. That was the goal of each. But while Babylon used the brute force of its armies, Tyre’s weapons were different. Tyre conquered using commerce. It understood the connection between economics and politics. And its plan was working. Tyre became a ‘bestower of crowns’. Both Babylon and Tyre were a problem for the people of God in Judah, though in very different ways. This is a good reminder that Satan is not limited in his ploys. Conquest by armies or conquest by commerce, it doesn’t matter much to him as long as he is attacking Jesus’ kingdom. But just as Tyre and Babylon were destroyed, one day Satan will also be destroyed. It’s only a matter of time.

So much for explaining some key points of the text. Now we’re ready for a question. I would remind you again of the importance of asking questions of the text. The right questions will help you to hear the Spirit speaking through the text. So, a question: Who is Isaiah’s audience? I hope some lights start to go on when you realize that Isaiah is not speaking to the people of Tyre. It’s not as if he took a trip up to Tyre, stood in the main market place and began preaching. Isaiah does his preaching in Jerusalem not in Tyre. So, who is Isaiah’s audience as he preaches this oracle? It’s the people of Judah. And that leads to this question. Why does Isaiah bother to tell the people of God in Judah this oracle about some foreign nation? There are those who would respond by saying that the Church needed to know about the Lordship of Jesus over all the nations. It’s an important doctrine that the people of God need to understand and believe. So, Isaiah tells them. And, of course, that’s all true, but it’s not very helpful – at least not in that form. Stated that way, Jesus’ Lordship is just some doctrine that you’re supposed to believe. Isaiah knew the doctrine as he preached. He knew it but he also applied it. The truths of the Bible are meant to be applied not just understood. A person really believes something only when he lives it.

Let’s get at Isaiah’s application this way. A key question that every person deals with every day is, ‘What do I do to make life work?’ We all face issues, obstacles, problems, and we need to figure out ways to deal with them. Some issues are big and life-changing like, ‘What do I do for a career?’ But then there are other, more immediate issues like, ‘I have twenty minutes to do about four hours worth of stuff. What do I do with the time that I have? And how do I not freak out about all that I can’t fit in?’ Whether it’s large once-in-a-lifetime kinds of issues or everyday ones, a key question we all face is, ‘How do I make life work, or at least work better?’ And the world, both back in Isaiah’s day as well as in our own, is filled with suggested answers to that question.

So, one way to understand this section of Isaiah’s book, the oracles about the nations, is to see it as Jesus’ evaluation of the nations’ answers to our question. Babylon’s answer is summed up in a simple phrase: brute force. You deal with problems from a position of strength by simply overwhelming them. There are those who adopt this method today. They overwhelm problems – and people! – not by using swords and walls but with a strong personality. It’s Babylon’s answer, but modified. It’s a different kind of brute force, but it does seem to make life work for them. And, sadly, some Christians have listened to modern day Babylons and have adopted this answer to the question. When confronted with a problem, power your way through it.

On the other hand, the people of God might look at Tyre, at least in its modern forms, and think, ‘That’s how we can make life work. It’s all about the wealth. Wealth gives power. Using your wealth will make life work.’ The strength of this temptation becomes clearer when you realize that we are already like Tyre. We are like Tyre in that we are wealthy. That’s just a fact. Now, there is no sin in that. The issue is not about whether someone has a measure of wealth. It’s about how he uses it. Tyre says, ‘Life works better when you use your wealth for yourself.’ That might mean using your wealth to crown someone you like to be king somewhere so that your goals will be achieved. Or it might show up as a plan to have lots of Google stock in your IRA. However, there are more subtle ways for someone to adopt Tyre’s motto, ‘Life works better when you use your wealth for yourself.’ And it’s the subtle that is so dangerous.

It’s here that I want to introduce you to my new toy. This is a jetBook Lite eBook reader. Think of it as a stripped down Amazon Kindle. There is no WiFi. You can’t write notes with it. There’s no audio so it can’t read to you. But it displays books on its gray screen for someone to read. I transfer files from my computer into my jetBook Lite, and then take it wherever and read stuff. I just got it a few weeks ago. But I took more than a few weeks to decide whether I should get it. You see, I knew that it would be a toy. I enjoy working through the learning curve when it comes to a new gadget or a new computer program. How does it work? What do I do to get it to function this way instead of that? That’s great fun for me. It’s because I’m curious about things – and that can be a great asset, or it can get you into lots of trouble. So, I knew that it would be a toy. Now, there is a place for toys that are just toys. Remember, I golf. But there are good reasons why I do that. We all need a ‘theology of toys’. How do they fit in with being a disciple of Jesus?

But this is different from golf. One question I had was, ‘Will this be more than a toy? Will it become a tool?’ I asked myself this question because I had to justify spending the money. After discounts and reward points, my little ereader cost me $100. Now, spending that wasn’t going to ruin my budget. But that wasn’t the issue. There are a lot of needy people out there. If instead of buying this thing, I gave the money away to someone, it might just make their day. In fact, there are lots of people for whom receiving $100 would make their year – or two. I have supported some pastors in the former Soviet Union. One hundred dollars can make a huge difference for some of them. So, I had to ask myself, ‘Would it be okay for me to spend this money on myself?’ And that boiled down to whether it would become a tool. Would this somehow help me to accomplish what Jesus calls me to do? If not, then getting it would be wrong. Tyre says, ‘You’ve got it, spend it. Enjoying your wealth in these sorts of ways will make life work better.’ Jesus disagrees.

There was another factor that I had to consider. Ereaders like Kindles and jetBook Lites are the latest thing. They have become very popular. I read the blog of a well-known and quite orthodox seminary president extolling the virtues of his new Kindle. But let’s face it, there is a lot of this sort of thing in our culture. The attitude of many goes something like this. ‘If I can get a [fill in the blank: iPod, xbox, kindle, tv satellite system, new car, new house, whatever], it will make life work a little better.’ And in some cases, this isn’t about the new whatever being a helpful tool or even a new toy. It’s more emotional than that. It’s about fitting in somehow. It’s the ‘everybody has one’ kind of thing, even though it may never be stated that way. So, another question that I posed to myself was, ‘Am I buying this to somehow fit in? Am I falling for the lie that says that having lots of cool stuff will make me feel that life is working a little better?’ The opinions of nations like Tyre are still very much with us. ‘You’ve got it, spend it. Enjoying your wealth in these sorts of ways will make life work.’

Now we’re ready for the next important question. How do we respond to this pressure to be like Tyre? What do we do? It should be obvious to you that I don’t think that refusing to buy anything is the way to go. After all, I bought my little ereader. The path to a wise response is more subtle than that.

How do we find that wise response? Let’s go back to that question I mentioned. Everyone, consciously or not, is dealing with the question, ‘How do I make life work?’ We all are asking that same question because we all sense that life, to some extent, at least, isn’t working – not the way that it’s actually supposed to. All you need to do is to think back over this past week. Something is off. Something is wrong. And thus the question, ‘How do I make life work, at least work better?’

That question is the right question. It’s really quite helpful because it’s a down to earth way to talk about sin. With that question, we can take a doctrine that we’re supposed to believe and apply it. Life doesn’t work the way that it’s supposed to because of sin. And when you say it that way, then you also have an answer to our question. How do you make life work? Jesus makes life work. To make that clearer let me add a word. Only Jesus makes life work. Nothing in all of creation will change your life so dramatically so that you don’t have any more problems, issues or obstacles. Making and spending more money, being part of the ‘in group’, being especially religious, graduating from wherever, having the latest electronic gadget – nothing in all of creation will make life work better. Tyre and all the other nations are wrong. Only Jesus makes life work. And that’s true because only Jesus can deal with sin. Knowing that gives hope. It gives hope because it reminds you that Jesus is right now busy changing things in your life so that it will work better and better. And one day, He will complete what He is doing in your life. One day, life is going to work perfectly for you. Perfectly.

So, remember this the next time something happens and you once again feel that life isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. That is to say, remember it this afternoon. What you’re being confronted with is sin. It might be your sin or someone else’s sin or even the sin that plagues creation. But Jesus is dealing with that. The process may be difficult but remember the end result: heaven, where life works perfectly. Seeing things this way means that wealth is no longer this something that is supposed to make life work. Your wealth is simply a tool that can help you accomplish what Jesus calls you to do.

So, be aware that Tyre’s answer to our question is still around and quite popular. Don’t be fooled by it. Pray that the Spirit will guide you. As you do that, you’ll see the changes that Jesus is making. And your life will work better and better.

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