The City Set Upon a Hill
This sermon was preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church on July 7, 2013, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The sermon text is Isaiah 66:10-14.
Dear Friends in Christ,
The image I have in mind for this sermon is “a city set upon a hill.” The city has been built on this hill so everyone can see it and people from around the world want to visit this very special city.
The first time I heard this image of “a city set upon a hill” applied to America was in a history class at UCLA. I was fascinated with this image. The lecturer told us that this idea was in the minds of many of the earliest settlers to this land. The Puritan Preacher Cotton Mather said America was the New Jerusalem, a shining beacon, a city set upon a hill, the place where folks from all around the world wanted to come.
I suppose I was fascinated with the image because I had heard the words enough at worship in the Bible readings to recognize that “Jerusalem” and “New Jerusalem” and “a light to the nations” and “a light to the Gentiles” were words and images that I had heard often. They applied to the City of Jerusalem that is the Holy City. They applied to the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of time that is described in the Book of the Revelation. They applied to what the Bible ascribes to Jesus and the Church, a light for the Gentiles and Messengers of Light and Salvation for All.
So, today I am impressed that the Old Testament Reading for the Sunday closest to our American Independence Day comes from the Prophet Isaiah. For it is Isaiah, writing about 700 years before Christ, who gives us this vivid imagery of the city set upon a hill and the holy mountain of God and the place where folks from every nation will come.
This day I wonder how much the comparison of America and the City Set Upon a Hill is still valid?
Isaiah said that God had especially chosen Jerusalem and the Jews to be His people and to serve a special purpose. The purpose was to bring salvation to the world.
Because these people were family and special, God had extra expectations and allowed his people to undergo trials and tribulations when they did not listen and obey Him. In Isaiah’s time great foreign armies swept through the land and the people were taken into slavery. But Isaiah always said a new day was coming, that God would repent of his punishment and bring forgiveness, healing and restoration. We Christians see a wonderful foretaste of the mission of Christ in the words and images and prophecy of Isaiah.
Listen again to today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 66 and hear the good news that Isaiah presented to the people even before they returned from slavery about what they could expect from God in their future: Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance. For this is what the Lord says: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass; the hand of the Lord will be made known to his servants, but his fury will be shown to his foes.”
Let me share a few comments on why I really like Isaiah. The name “Isaiah” means “the Lord saves”. The structure of Isaiah is like a mini-Bible. The Bible has 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. In Isaiah, the first 39 chapters depict judgment and harsh treatment for not obeying God. The last 27 chapters declare a message of comfort and hope.
God’s grace is presented in abundance in Isaiah. Some may think that grace is only found in the New Testament. I am here to testify that you will find it in Isaiah. Also, there are lots of Messianic prophecies in Isaiah. If you have ever sung Handel’s Messiah, you will recognize his imagery, such as how the virgin will conceive and bear a son in chapter 7. In chapter 53 we hear a description of Christ’s passion and death, and even the resurrection.
I like how Isaiah uses nature to expand our vocabulary for God. He is the one who writes “the sun and moon are shamed” and “the desert and parched land rejoice” and “the mountains and forest burst into song” and “the trees clap their hands”. Did it get your attention in today’s reading that Isaiah compares Jerusalem to a “nursing mother”?
In a moment we are going to sing a song about America. It is my hope and prayer that as we sing this familiar and patriotic hymn, we will also be praying that God will not bless us so much to make us great, but will bless us in order for us to serve God and be a blessing for God’s world.