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Isaiah 26:12-16, 19

Trinity XI

August 27, 2017

St. Paul’s Anglican Church

 

“First Things First”

 

First things first… you’ll avoid the worst.

First things last… disaster comes fast!

 

Growing up in rural Oregon in the 1950s, I learned early on — loud and clear — that “first things” come first.  Animals, for example, were always to be fed before family members were fed!  I can still hear the words echoing in the long-term memory banks of my mind!  “Animals cannot feed themselves, Ron.  You need to feed them first, then come to the table.”

 

There is a very special story that makes this exact point – a story which has been around for a long, long time – entitled “Keeper of the Spring.”

 

A quiet forest dweller who lived high above an Austrian village along the eastern slope of the Alps was known as “keeper of the spring.”  The old gentleman had been hired many years earlier by a young town councilman to clear away the debris from the pools of water up in the mountain crevices that fed the lovely spring which so gracefully flowed through their town below. With faithful, silent, diligent regularity, he patrolled the hills, removed the leaves and branches, and wiped away the silt that would otherwise have choked and contaminated the fresh flow of water. The village soon became a very popular attraction for vacationers. Graceful swans floated along its crystal clear spring, the mill wheels of various businesses located near the water turned productively day and night, farmlands were naturally irrigated, and the view from restaurants and shops was picturesque beyond description.

All was well…  Too well!  As they say, “They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

 

For years passed by… and one evening the town council met for its semiannual meeting. As they reviewed the budget, one member’s eye caught the salary figure being paid to the obscure keeper of the spring who lived up in the hills.   Said the keeper of the purse, “Who is this old man anyway? Why do we keep him on the payroll year after year? No one ever sees him. For all we know, the strange ranger of the hills is doing us no good. I do not believe that he is necessary any longer.” By a unanimous vote, they dispensed with the old man’s services.

 

For several weeks, nothing changed.  But when autumn arrived, the trees up in the hills began to shed their leaves. Small branches snapped off and fell into the pools, hindering the rushing flow of sparkling water. One afternoon someone noticed a slight yellowish-brown tint in the spring water of the town. A few days later, the water was much darker and smelly. Within another week, a slimy film covered sections of the water along the banks, and a foul odor became dominant. The mill wheels moved more slowly — some finally grinding to a halt.  Fish died… swans left — as did tourists. The clammy fingers of disease and sickness reached deep into the village.

 

Quickly, the embarrassed council called a special meeting.  Realizing their gross error in judgment, they rehired the old keeper of the spring, and within a few weeks, the veritable river of life began to clear up. The wheels started to gracefully turn once more, and new vitality returned to the hamlet in the Alps.

 

How easy it is to forget “first things” when all is “going well”!!

 

This is, of course, Isaiah’s message to us this morning – concerning the history of his people!  Just like the life of the quaint Austrian hamlet changed almost overnight when “first things” were forgotten… so, too, did God’s people change in their thinking and in their behavior when they forgot God!  And they soon found themselves in bondage to others!   Former president Reagan once quipped: “The day we forget we are one nation under God, we will be a nation “gone under”!

 

We must keep first things first – individually… as a church… as a nation!  We must not listen to any siren song that would lead us astray and destroy our futures!  As St. Paul would later tell the Galatians – even if an angel tells you differently than God’s self-revelation, do not believe it!

 

Isaiah reminds God’s people of this in a compelling and well-known statement which is at one-and-the-same-time both a confession and a prayer stating his confidence in the Ancient of Days.  Verse 13…

 

O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us…

 

“Just who were these other lords?” we ask.  Well, the list would certainly include the Egyptians who held them in bondage as their taskmasters for hundreds of years. 

 

The list would also include the Mesopotamians to the north (Assyria and Babylon and Medo-Persia)… who from the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers plagued them!

 

Also listed, of course, would be the Philistine overlords (including Goliath of Gath) who lived along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, land-locking Israel.

 

Indeed, almost all of their neighbors at one-time-or-another had dominion over them (forcing them into servitude) during their 1,000-year-plus long history!

 

Why?  Why were they such an easy prey?  Were these nations too strong for them?  No!  It was generally because God’s people forgot to keep first things first!  The prophets warned them time and again not to forget the Almighty and His laws and His ways.

 

But they wanted to be like the other nations of the earth!  They sought the “protection” of alliances with other faithless nations!  And hence Isaiah’s confession and prayer of confidence in God!

 

O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us…

 

When things go well, we all – like the town council of the Alpine village – forget “first things.”  We say then that our cleverness brought us all that we have – when in reality it was God’s gracious Hand that furnished all of it!

 

We say we deserved all of the goodness God has showered upon us – while in reality it was truly an outpouring from God’s great and good heart!

 

How easy it is for all of us to forget to keep first things first!  The day was too busy, we say!  Or… I had too many interruptions!  And of course, it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity that came to me, some say!

 

The minute we think about being like the world, and the worldlings which inhabit it, we enter onto a very, very slippery slope, indeed!

 

There is a theological formulation that has served God’s people well for countless generations.  It is known as God’s Prior Claim.  If you have never heard of it, you would do well to give it some thought!  Whatever man may think or feel or decide, the Almighty always has the Prior Claim on all mankind.  Our allegiance… our time… our schedules… our treasures!  To put it in the vernacular, God’s claims on us trump all others!

 

And there is a beautiful word in Latin given by God for our support and encouragement: IM-PRI’-MIS… which means “in the first place.”  Genesis 1: 1 In the beginning God… In the first place… imprimis… The Ancient of Days!

 

It has been said that it is easier to remove a man from the world than to remove the world from a man!  And I for one believe it!  It is so true!

 

Jesus said that the first and great commandment is to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength.  He explained that no one can serve two masters at the same time!  Split allegiances are self-defeating and self-destructive!

 

A person can serve only one master.  And we are to count the cost of being Christ’s followers… His disciples… His people… His servants… and dare I say it in today’s political environment (!) “His slaves” (for that is what St. Paul literally calls himself).  Having counted the cost and committed ourselves to Him, we are to carry our crosses with Him daily.

 

Joshua said, “Choose this day whom ye will serve…  But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Whom do you serve?

 

O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us…

 

First things first… you’ll avoid the worst.

First things last… disaster comes fast!

 

World without end.  Amen.

 LISTEN TO THIS SERMON

 

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