Three Doors and the First Ember Day of Advent
by Rev. David R. Sincerbox
Isaiah 44:24-35:13; Mark 8:11-9:1; Revelation 20
Ember days are special days set apart for fasting and prayer. They occur on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday four times a year: between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent; the first and second Sundays of Lent; between Pentecost and Trinity Sundays; and the third week of September, the first Wednesday after Holy Cross Day (September 14). So when we leave today, let us dedicate some time for prayer, if not for fasting.
Ember days are days that celebrate the beginning of the seasons. They are set apart to thank God for the gifts that come from him, especially the gifts of harvest, to seek these gifts to feed the needy, and to teach us to use God’s gifts appropriately. When we leave here today, let us pray that those who are in desperate need of his salvation will come to the Lord and will look forward to his Second Coming.
At first, there does not appear to be a common thread between the three Lectionary passages for today. The hint of a common thread came to me as I considered some of the music I am listening to this Advent Season; the theme of this music is Tenebrae, the service of Maundy Thursday during Holy Week at the end of which the candles and the lights in the church are gradually extinguished, symbolizing the impending death of our Savior that would take place during good Friday. The pieces I am listening to are Alexander Levine’s “The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Tenebrae,” and Will Todd’s “The Call of Wisdom, Tenebrae.” I have Chrysostom’s Liturgy by several composers, but Levine’s is the newest addition to my repertoire. Why am I listening to these two pieces? Without Holy Week, without the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, the birth of Jesus would have no significance or meaning: it would have been just another birth of an obscure Jewish boy long ago; Advent would thus have no significance. As it is, Advent is almost swamped by the materialism and the false sentimentality of what the world calls “The Holiday Season.” Advent has meaning because Jesus suffered and died on the cross, rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and promised that he would come again in glory. Next week, as Christmas Eve approaches, I will listen to Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” But this week, I will listen to music that reminds me that Jesus came into the world to bear the judgment for my sin that I rightly deserved, and thus gives me hope and joy as I look forward to his coming again on the clouds.
Can you see my drift with the music I am listening to and today’s Lectionary lessons? All three passages describe cataclysmic changes moving certain historic periods from darkness to light, from condemnation and judgment to comfort and restoration. All three passages describe three historic doors, which open to reveal rooms of light from rooms of darkness, rooms of God’s comfort from rooms of God’s judgment.
The first door. The first door is opening on all of the preparation that must take place to bring about the first Advent of our Savior as predicted by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah ministered from 740 B. C. to 680 B.C. He spent the majority of his time preaching in Jerusalem. He is polished and articulate in his writings. His wife was a prophetess who fathered two sons. Talmudic tradition claims that during the reign of Manasseh, he was sawn in two, which could be the reference made in Hebrews 11:37.
Today’s passage has prompted many to argue that there were two different “Isaiahs” compiled in the Old Testament book entitled Isaiah, one Isaiah who wrote the prophecies from 1:1-35:10, and another Isaiah who wrote the prophecies from 40:1-66:24. They claim that deutero-Isaiah, the second anonymous Isaiah who took the first Isaiah’s name, came after the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, because how would the first Isaiah know Cyrus of Persia by name when this conqueror came into being almost a hundred years later? How would the first Isaiah know that this Cyrus would allow the Jews to return to devastated Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple? If one did not believe in the supernatural power of God to inspire Isaiah to predict of this future king, two Isaiahs seem feasible. But we believe in a God who can do this.
The book of Isaiah consists of three major sections, as outlined by Wilkinson and Boa in Talk thru the Bible: the first spans from verses 1:1 to 35:10 and has as its theme prophecies of condemnation due to God’s judgment; the second is an historic interlude that spans chapters 36 to 39: the third spans chapter 40:1 to 66:24 and has as its theme prophecies of comfort due to Messianic hope. The historic interlude looked back at the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and looked forward to the Babylonian invasion of the Southern Kingdom.
Of all the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke the most about salvation, using the Hebrew word for “salvation” 26 times, and the phrase “to save” once. The name Isaiah means, “Salvation is of the Lord.” It is also significant that when the angel appeared to Joseph and told Joseph not to put Mary away, he also said, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” “Jesus is the Latinized Greek name for the Hebrew “Yehoshua,” shortened to “Yeshua,” which means “Yahweh’s salvation.” It is significant that the prophet named “Salvation is of the Lord” would foretell of the one who would be named Yeshua, “Yahweh’s salvation.” What better prophet to have salvation as the major theme of his oracles? This is why some have called Isaiah the “Saint Paul of the Old Testament.” All of the other prophets combined, the other two major prophets and the thirteen minor prophets combined employ the Hebrew word for salvation only seven times.
Wilkinson and Boa summarize Isaiah’s prophecy in this manner:
Salvation is of God, not man, and He is seen as the supreme Ruler, the sovereign Lord of history, and the only Savior. Isaiah solemnly warned Judah of approaching judgment because of moral depravity, political corruption, social injustice, and especially spiritual idolatry. Because the nation would not turn away from its sinful practice, Isaiah announced the ultimate overthrow of Judah. Nevertheless, God would remain faithful to His covenant by preserving a godly remnant and promising salvation and deliverance through the coming Messiah. The Savior will come out of Judah and accomplish the twin work of redemption and restoration. The Gentiles will come to His light and universal blessing will finally come.
Cyrus was one of the greatest conquerors in history. What this passage teaches us is that God is sovereign over the affairs of humankind and uses the rulers and conquerors of this world to his purposes, which is the salvation of his people. Over and over in today’s passage, God, Yahweh, asserts his sovereignty, such as, “I am the LORD [Yahweh] who made all things,/who alone stretched out heaven” (44:24). In his sovereignty, God chose Cyrus and enabled him to become one of the most powerful and richest men in the world, giving him “the treasures of darkness/and the hoards in secret places” (45:3). This probably refers to the treasures of Babylon.
In his sovereignty, God selected a non-believer, a polytheistic ruler, to be his anointed one to bring about the end of Jewish condemnation for their sins. Cyrus did not know God (45:4) but God knew Cyrus (45:4) and called him by his name (55:3) and even named him (45:4). He also equipped him, although Cyrus did not know nor did he worship God (45:5), Why did God do this? Because God is “the Lord, and there is no other” (45:5). God thus enabled Cyrus to be his minister in returning the Jews to their land and rebuilding Jerusalem so that eventually the restored Temple would surpass its former glory under the hand of Herod the Great, albeit without the glory of the Lord residing in its presence. The glory of God left the Temple according to Ezekiel 10:10 prior to Babylon’s destroying it. The glory of the Lord did not return to the Temple again, until Jesus walked in its midst, and that only for a moment as Jesus ministered there. Cyrus fulfilled God’s purpose so that Jesus could walk in the Temple, enter Jerusalem triumphantly, be crucified outside the city and be resurrected within the shadow of Jerusalem.
God works his sovereign purposes through the forces of history, using believer and nonbeliever to bring about his divinely ordained purposes. God was working his sovereign purposes in his Son, but the Pharisees “came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11). Hardness of heart had brought about God’s judgment against Israel during the Assyrian and the Babylonian campaigns.
The door of Israel’s condemnation, of Israel’s living in the darkness of exile, was opening up into the period in which our Savior would reveal that he was the light of the world. But darkness and light would now coexist, resulting in the judgments the world will face as described in St. John’s Revelation.
The second door. This door only opens completely with the resurrection of Jesus, although light is in the world but the world does not comprehend it. In this room of shadow and light, the first Advent of our Savior has taken place and he is within our midst. In today’s gospel pericopes, we are also in the room of impending judgment on sin. Jesus will soon take believers’ judgments upon his shoulders, and Jerusalem, due to its hardness of heart, will face judgment at the hands of the Romans. The key passage in today’s gospel reading is Mar 8:34-38 is when Jesus,
…calling the crowd to him with his disciples, … said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
So often this passage is presented in light of Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The denial is often presented as seeking moral purity and self-denial, but what Jesus is saying in both accounts is that the sovereign purposes of God in bringing about the Second Advent should be the all-consuming passion of our lives, even to the extent that we are willing to follow him into death. The true cost of discipleship is this: We must be willing, if called upon, to relinquish our life if we are to gain it.
The third door. Because Revelation 20 teaches us that there will be a culmination to history as we know it, and the world will be condemned and judged because of its sin and its rejection of Jesus. We are still in darkness at the opening of Revelation 20. But darkness will not prevail. This the final door will soon open up into eternal light, light in which Christ will be visibly encased and in which Christ will reign in the New Jerusalem. The candles of the nations who are opposed to God and who martyr God’s children will be snuffed out permanently, no unlike the candles of Tenabrae. God’s judgment will be complete. And God’s comfort and restoration will begin. Those of us who have allowed Jesus to take our judgment upon his shoulders and received him as Lord and Savior will reign with the Triune God. There will also be a time of accountability for all to be judged at the Great White Throne. Satan will be defeated and thrown into the lake of fire, along with Death and Hades and all who are wicked.
This is why one of our Advent Psalms warns us:
Today, if you hear [God’s] voice,
do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said,
“They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest” (Psalm 95:8-11).
Regardless of what transpires before the third door opens, we are not to lose heart or harden our hearts, but keep our hearts firmly in the heart of our sovereign God through his Son Jesus is, as Paul states in Ephesians 1:10, uniting “all thing in him, things in heaven and things in earth.” Even if this might mean following him to the cross. Jesus will come again. The third door will open into everlasting glory, majesty, and light. Let us depart from here this Ember Day resolved to pray that God will quickly bring all things to pass so that his Son will soon come again. Let me leave you with this story from Charles Spurgeon, found in Feathers for Arrows:
I was told of a poor peasant on the Welsh mountains who, month after month, year after year, through a long period of declining life, was used every morning, as soon as he awoke, to open his casement window, towards the east, and look out to see if Jesus Christ was coming. He was no calculator, or he need not have looked so long; he was no student of prophecy, or he need not have looked at all; he was ready, or he would not have been in so much haste; he was willing, or he would rather have looked another way; he loved, or it would not have been the first thought of the morning. His Master did not come, but a messenger did, to fetch the ready one home. The same preparation sufficed for both, the longing soul was satisfied with either. Often when, in the morning, the child of God awakes, weary and encumbered with the flesh, perhaps from troubled dreams, perhaps with troubled thoughts, his Father’s secret comes presently across him, he looks up, if not out, to feel, if not to see, the glories of that last morning when the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall arise indestructible; no weary limbs to bear the spirit down; no feverish dreams to haunt the vision; no dark forecasting of the day’s events, or returning memory of the griefs of yesterday.