Last Sunday, Susan, our daughter, Leah, and I watched the livestream of Elton John’s last concert at Dodger Stadium. And something Elton said during that concert struck me as being rather profound. He referred to the two shows he did at Dodger Stadium back in October 1975, and said that he will always remember those concerts, but that he wasn’t happy then. Now, he is happy, he has been sober for 32 years and he has a family, and he is looking forward to retiring and spending as much time as he can with them.
That seems somewhat counterintuitive because, from the world’s perspective, he had more reasons to be happy in 1975 than he does now in 2022. Back then, he was the biggest music artist in the world back, with millions of adoring fans, and he was in his late 20s and relatively healthy. Now, he is an artist who is closing out of his career, and, at 75 years of age, he is coming to the end of his life. But he is far happier now. Why?
In August 1990, there was a turning point in Elton John’s life. Someone close to him called him out on his addictions and he spent six weeks in rehab at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.[i] During his time there, he wrote these words in a letter to cocaine:
“I now have the opportunity to change my way of living and thinking. I am prepared to accept humility, and therefore have to say goodbye to you for the final time.
…You have kept me from any sort of spirituality and you have kept me from finding out who I really am. I don’t want you and I to share the same grave. I want to die a natural death when I go, at peace with myself. I want to live the rest of my life being honest and facing the consequences rather than hiding behind my celebrity status. I feel as though, after sixteen years with you, I was dead anyway.
Once more, white lady–goodbye. If I run into you somewhere-…I’ll ignore you and leave immediately. You’ve seen me enough over the years and I’m sick of you. You’ve won the fight–I surrender.
Thanks but no thanks,
Though most of us are not rock stars like Elton John, there is something very human about his story. We human beings tend to live life on a superficial level, chasing around after things which promise us the moon, but they really enslave us to habits and ways of being that, if left unchecked, will destroy us and damage the people around us. There is a darkness within us that needs to be brought into the light and be healed. We all need a moment of absolute clarity on how bad our situation really is.
And also, like Elton, we need something else. Did you hear it? He wrote, “I want to live the rest of my life being honest and facing the consequences rather than hiding behind my celebrity status.” Elton’s intention to live a life of radical honesty was ignited by the hope of a better life. But how can we have hope when everything seems hopeless? That’s what we are going to be thinking about as we begin a new series today called The Humble King Comes. Throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons, we will be reflecting on how the Messiah, long foretold by the prophet Isaiah, came into this world as a helpless baby in a poor family in a backwater corner of the world. Why? From the world’s perspective, that’s not how it should have happened. The way that the world thinks, it should have happened in Dodger Stadium with 55,000 fans present and a livestream carried around the world to millions of viewers on Disney+. And yet, that is not the way that God does things.
So the three questions that we will be thinking about today are: Why did this humble King come? Why did this King come in humility? And is this humble King who came, our King? Today, as we think about these questions, we will be looking at Isaiah 2:1-5.
Isaiah’s Message of Hope in a Hopeless Time
As we do that, here is some background that you really need to know. Isaiah was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem about 700 years before Jesus was born. As a prophet, he spoke God’s Word to his people (because that is what prophets do) in the southern kingdom of Judah. The Israelite nation first became a kingdom under Saul, who was followed by David, and then David’s son, Solomon. When Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, succeeded his father, he was not a good king, and the kingdom split into two parts, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.
So Isaiah was in Judah and he was serving as a prophet to God’s people in the midst of very troubling times. The northern kingdom of Israel, and the neighboring kingdom of Syria, attacked Judah and wanted to replace the king of Judah, Ahaz, with a puppet king of their own choosing who would align with them against the world superpower of that time, the Assyrian Empire.
Now what Ahaz should have done in response, and what Isaiah strongly encouraged him to do, was to trust in God to protect Judah. But that is not what Ahaz did. He didn’t trust God and that showed up in his decisions and his actions. Ahaz erected pagan images and sacrificed his children to pagan gods (see 1 Chronicles 18:1-4). This idea that we have in our culture today that faith is a private matter that people should keep to themselves is simply not true. The truth is that what we believe in influences everything we do in life and it shows up in the decisions we make and the actions we take. And we see that in the life of Ahaz.
Instead of following Isaiah’s advice and trusting in God and his power for the protection and hope that he and his people needed, Ahaz trusted in humans and in human power. He made a deal with the Assyrians to be subject to them in exchange for their protection. And there were huge consequences to Ahaz’s decision. Ahaz sent all the gold and silver and all the treasures in his palace to Assyria to get the Assyrians to attack Syria and Israel. But even though Assyria did attack and destroy Syria and Israel, Ahaz’s faithless decision did not make things better in Judah, they made things worse, much worse. Ahaz had impoverished the kingdom of Judah and made her subject to the warmongering Assyrian Empire. And now that evil Empire was sitting on Judah’s doorstep and threatening her directly.
God’s Message of Hope
So how could the people of Judah have hope when everything in their life indicated that there was no reason for hope? The one word answer is God. God promised them a better future, and his assurance that he would do that was his faithfulness in the past. Judah’s present troubles did not happen in a vacuum. When our first parents sinned and paradise was lost as a result, God promised that he would send a descendant of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head even as the serpent bruised that descendant’s heel. This is the first hint that God would send a Messiah to save his people. Later God chose Abraham and his family to be his people in the world, and it was through his people, the Israelites, that God would bless the world by sending the Messiah. When the Israelites were held in slavery in the powerful kingdom of Egypt, God humbled Egypt through a series of miraculous plagues that compelled the pharoah to let the Israelites go. When the fleeing Israelites were backed up against the Red Sea, and the Egyptian chariots were quickly approaching to cut them down, God again miraculously intervened to save his people by parting the Red Sea and drowning the Egyptian army when the Israelites were safely on the other side.
God works through human weakness to show us his mighty power, so that we would turn away from our addiction to human power and surrender to God in total weakness. And the amazing thing is that, when we do that, God’s power begins to flow through us. This is how life with God works.
Seven centuries or so after the exodus, here we have the little kingdom of Judah facing overwhelming threats on multiple fronts, and Isaiah comes and says,
2 In the last days
the mountain where the Lord’s temple is located will be famous.
It will be the highest mountain of all.
It will be raised above the hills.
All the nations will go to it.
3 People from many nations will go there. They will say,
“Come. Let us go up to the Lord’s mountain.
Let’s go to the temple of Jacob’s God.
He will teach us how we should live.
Then we will live the way he wants us to.”
The law of the Lord will be taught at Zion.
His message will go out from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations.
He’ll settle problems among many of them.
They will hammer their swords into plows.
They’ll hammer their spears into pruning tools.
Nations will not go to war against one another.
They won’t even train to fight anymore.
5 People of Jacob, come.
Let us live the way the Lord has taught us to. (Isaiah 2:2-5 NIrV)
So what is Isaiah saying here? First he is saying that there will be vindication for God’s people. Mountains and temples are places where gods and humans meet, and the mountain where the Lord’s temple is located will be the most famous and the highest one of all. Back then, the most powerful, prosperous and dominant nation was considered to be the one with the best gods. But at the end of time, all will see that Yahweh, the God of the weak ones, is the one, true God, and the best thing to have done in this life was to fully trust in him.
Isaiah is also saying that the wonderful, bright future that God will bring about is open to anyone. God brought salvation into the world through the Israelites, but that salvation will not only be for the Israelites. It will be for all people. Everyone who trusts in Yahweh, the God who saves will be saved.
Second, Isaiah is saying that God will teach us how to live, and it will be the way that we were always meant to live.
Third, God promises to make all wrong things right by bringing his perfect justice into this world.
Fourth, God promises a true and lasting peace where tools of war will no longer be needed. They can be made into tools for growing food.
Then Isaiah ends with an invitation: People of Jacob, come. Let us live the way the Lord has taught us to. (Isaiah 2:5 NIrV)
The Humble King Who Came
Dear friends, we know more about God than the people of God did in Isaiah’s time. For we have seen the fulfillment of God’s promise to send his Messiah to save his people. God the Son became human in the womb of a poor, teenaged, unwed mother. He was born as a helpless baby in a barn because there was no room in the inn for his parents. As an adult, he had no bed to call his own and relied on the goodwill of others for his daily needs. He was loved by the down and out. He was hated by those who misused power, both religious power and political power, because his goodness threatened to expose their evil systems and bring them crashing down.
But Jesus’ greatest humiliation happened when he willingly followed his Father’s will and allowed himself to be beaten, whipped, lied against, mocked and nailed to a cross to suffer and die, even though he had done nothing wrong.
And Jesus did all that to wipe away our sinful past, bring us into life with him right now as a beloved, forgiven child of God, and guarantee a future with him where there will be vindication, knowledge, justice and peace for anyone and everyone who trusts in him.
God’s promises give us hope, even in our darkest hour. So it doesn’t matter how deep the pit is that you are in. Jesus will meet you there and lift you out of that pit.
The Boy Who Was Given Hope
There once was a young boy who was hospitalized because of burns that were so bad, his nurses were concerned that he would die. The school district in that area had a program of helping children in hospital with their school work so that they would not fall too far behind in their studies while they were ill. The teacher who taught the boy in school asked the teacher in the hospital program to help the boy with nouns and adverbs because that is what his class was studying. No one warned the hospital program teacher about the extent of the boy’s burns or the pain he was in. When she went to visit him, she was so overwhelmed by what she saw that she could only say, “I am here to teach you about nouns and adverbs.” Then she mumbled a few more words and left.
The next day, the nurses caring for the boy asked what she had done to him. Thinking that she had somehow harmed him, she began to apologize. “No, no,” said the nurses. “You don’t understand. Before your visit, we were worried that the boy was not going to survive. But ever since you came here yesterday, he has made a turnaround and he looks like he is on the road to recovery.
Before the boy left the hospital, he explained what happened. Everything changed for him with that first visit from the hospital program teacher. As he said, “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?” The visit from the teacher was the promise of a better future, and that gave the boy hope. And that hope enabled him to see his future in a better way, and that led to his recovery.[iii]
Jesus, the Humble King, Came to Give You Hope
Dear friends, the great high king of heaven came to give you hope. That’s the answer to Why did this humble King come? He came in humility so that you can know that however low you are, he will meet you there and lift you up. That’s the answer to our second question: Why did this King come in humility? But then there is our third question: Is this humble King who came, your King? And that is a question that each person needs to answer for themselves. My prayer is that your answer will be “yes.” Amen.
[i] Elton John, Me: Elton John Official Autobiography (New York: St. Martin, 2019), 229.
[ii] Elton John, 228-229.
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(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on November 27, 2022. For more information about our church, please go to wglc.org.)