Summary: Convincing teenagers that temptation is a no-win proposition is hard to do, but this oft-neglected passage from Isaiah offers insight.
In the Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls,” there is a line where Sky Masterton (the Marlon Brando role in the film version) shares some advice that his father gave him. Sky is a gambler and the entire play revolves around a certain bet that he makes which pays off in a way he isn’t expecting. But I want to focus on that advice for a moment. He said, “Son, no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this. Someday, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.” (From Damon Runyon, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”)
Goldie Hawn played a relatively naïve woman who became entangled in a Washington D.C. scandal, eventually becoming the scapegoat, in 1984’s Protocol. At a press conference after the scandal broke, she said, “My father always told me that if a man on the street offers to sell you a $50 watch for $5, it probably isn’t even worth $5.” [That may not be the exact monetary amounts, but it covers the sentiment expressed in the line and film pretty well.]
Did you know that the Bible offered a similar warning in even more colorful language back in the 8th century before Christ? It didn’t mince words, either. Right after a powerful description of God’s plan to save Israel (and by extension, the world) through the Messiah, God’s People are warned about the danger of a covenant (contract or alliance) with Death, depending on things that don’t last. Israel was about to buy that watch that wasn’t worth $5 or bet on that ear full of cider.
It’s very easy to be fooled. This morning, I want to demonstrate how easy it is with a very simple card trick. Until you know the secret, it seems like it might be legitimate. Once you figure out the secret, you definitely feel cheated. And that’s the way it works with temptation. So, let’s see what the Bible says.
14) Therefore, hear the Word of Yahweh, men of scorn,
riddle-makers (soothsayers? Prophets? Counselors?) of this people who are in Jerusalem.
15) BECAUSE you said, “We have cut a covenant with Death;
and with Sheol (the Place of the Dead) we made a vision [sealing a pact?];
the overflowing flood will certainly pass over and not come to us;
BECAUSE we placed lies as our refuge and in deceit we are hidden.
16) Therefore, thus says Lord Yahweh,
“Check Me out! I have placed in Zion a stone, a tested stone,
a valuable cornerstone I founded as a foundation [so]
the one depending on it shall not shake.”
17) And as a result, I will set justice as the line and righteousness as the lead;
and hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies
and waters flood [where] we are hiding.
18) And your contract with Death shall be nullified
and your vision [ritual pact?] with Sheol shall not stand
when the overflowing flood is certain to pass over
and, as a result, you shall be caused to be beaten down.
19) Whenever it passes over, it shall take you
BECAUSE by morning to morning it shall pass over and by day and night,
and it will be terror only to understand the message.
20) BECAUSE the bed is too short for stretching out
and the cover too narrow for wrapping.
We take God’s promise a placing a foundation stone in Zion and a cornerstone (Isaiah 28:16) as a picture of Jesus as our Savior, the only SURE place on which to base our lives. In its original appearance in the Old Testament, the verse contains both a threat and a promise. No wonder the New Testament writers quickly jumped from cornerstone to stumbling stone. It is a two-edged promise.
But even more amazing to me is the fact that this two-edged promise is sandwiched between two verses on death (v. 14 and v. 18). So, as I have been meditating upon death in recent weeks, I feel strongly that God has something to teach us from this passage. If so, let’s go to God in prayer. [God of LIFE, we come to You today with an awareness of the reality that our human lives, our existence in this decaying vessel we call a body, is coming inexorably to an end. Help us not to be unfinished symphonies or manuscripts, but help us to become the masterpieces You desire to make us—according to Your power as manifested in Jesus as our Lord and Savior—Amen.]