Trinity Nineteen Sermon 2011
October 2, 2011
“Idolatry and the Forgiveness of Sins”
“Remember these, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant; I have formed you, you are My servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me! I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and glorified Himself in Israel. Isaiah 44:21-23
Most people don’t go to church. Why do you think that is? I can think of two reasons why people don’t bother going to church on a Sunday morning. First, they don’t think they need what the church has to give. Second, even if they did need it, they don’t think the church has it.
But the church most certainly has what we need and we most certainly need what the church has.
We all need the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus gave the forgiveness of sins to his Church. We confess, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” In giving the Holy Spirit to the Church Jesus made her a communion of saints and gave her the forgiveness of sins.
After Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, he breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23) Jesus claimed the power on earth to forgive sins. He proved the power he claimed by healing the paralyzed man. He exercises the power and authority to forgive sins through his Church. The pastor says, “By virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the word, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Jesus has authority on this earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners and to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent. The crowd that witnessed his miraculous healing of the paralytic marveled that God had given such power to men. Jesus continues to exercise his power to forgive sinners right here on earth where we need it. He speaks his words of forgiveness through his ministers and through those words we stand before God forgiven of all our sins.
Yes, the church has the power to forgive sins. Jesus gave it to her. Yes, we need forgiveness of our sins. There is nothing in life we need more. Everybody needs forgiveness. Everybody ought to go to where the forgiveness of sins is given. This is where you belong. God welcomes you here.
The history of the Old Testament Church is a history of Israel falling into idolatry, suffering the consequences, repenting of their sin, and then being forgiven and restored by God’s grace. This portion of the book of Isaiah was addressed originally to the Old Testament Church in exile. She had fallen into idolatry. She had been taken into captivity. She saw the fruit of idolatry up close and personal. God spoke through Isaiah to call his Church back to himself.
Idolatry is worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. Folks today likely think that their religious beliefs and practices have little in common with the practices of the idol worshippers in the ancient world. But they’re wrong. What is a man doing when he carves an idol out of wood and bows down to what his hands have made and worships it? He is worshipping his own creation. So then, what is a man doing when he looks inside of his heart and feelings and discovers what he desires and then lives a life devoted to satisfying those desires? He is worshipping his own creation. In either case he is his own god. That’s what idolatry comes down to. The idol is a representative of the self. The idolater projects onto the idol he has made his own notions, his own ideas, his own desires – in short, himself. Then he worships what his mind and hands have made. That is, he worships himself.
And he pays for it. He always pays for it because he’s a rotten god. Self-worship elevates selfishness as a virtue and results in misery. Only the true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – can give true life. That’s because only the Creator can give to the fallen and sinful creation what they need. They cannot give it to themselves. Their greatest need is to be delivered from their own sin. The answer to their troubles does not lie within them. That’s where their troubles are. The answer is in God’s word. Listen to what God says:
Remember these, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant; I have formed you, you are My servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me!
I have formed you. You did not form me. I did not arise in your hearts. I did not appear out of your own contemplation. I came to you from outside of you because I am your Creator. You are not mine. I have called you to serve me, to worship me, to call upon me, to trust in me. And even though you have denied me by running after false gods – gods of your own making – I have never forgotten you. You will not be forgotten by me.
God goes on to say:
I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.
Pay close attention to these words. First, he blots out our sins. Then he invites us to return to him. The order of events is deliberately stated by God through the prophet Isaiah and that order must stand as stated. First God forgives. Then God calls on us to repent, to return, to find refuge in his mercy.
Repentance does not bring about forgiveness. Forgiveness brings about repentance. We don’t get God to forgive us by returning to him with our promises to do better. God forgives us for Christ’s sake on account of his mercy. God forgives us on account of the blood Jesus shed for us. It is as St. Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans:
For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3)
The reason we are forgiven or justified through faith and through faith alone is because we are forgiven freely by God’s grace through Christ’s redemption. The cause of our forgiveness is Jesus and his redemptive work for us. Our faith simply receives what God graciously gives. Our faith doesn’t cause God to forgive. First God forgives and then faith has something in which to believe.
It’s like watching the sun dissipate the early morning mist. The mist hovers above the ground and permeates everything, clinging to the grass below and the leaves above. Then the sun rises above the horizon and the mist is gone. The sun removes it. It’s there and then it’s gone.
The forgiveness of sins enlightens us so that we can see clearly, unclouded by all sorts of foolish opinions that in our vanity we thought were so very deep and meaningful. The human heart is full of deceit. It enjoys deceiving itself. Only when God graciously sets us free from our own folly can we see clearly and understand where we stand with him. God sets us free by forgiving us our sins.
The assurance of forgiveness doesn’t lie within us. This is where so many Christians get themselves into real spiritual trouble. They look for the answer where the problem is. Now it’s true enough that the Holy Spirit lives inside of us. But so does sin. Sin breeds doubts and confusion. The sinful desires within us are what led to every sin we ever committed. Don’t look for assurance within you. Look to assurance in the word God speaks to you. You can trust him. You can’t trust your own feelings. Jesus proved his power to forgive by healing the paralytic. The Bible doesn’t even mention the man’s faith. It mentions the faith of his friends, but not his faith. Jesus doesn’t need our faith. Our faith needs him.
And when God forgives a sinner and that sinner receives the forgiveness through simple faith in the words that provide it, why this is what glorifies God in this world. God’s glory is not seen in the beauty of the heavens or in the majesty of the mountains, forests, and trees. It is seen in his forgiving helpless and guilty sinners of all their sins. His true glory as God is seen in the suffering of his dear Son who earned his right to forgive sins by bearing all sins of all sinners on the cross. God doesn’t forgive us cheaply. God himself became a man – the Son of man – to do what he required of mankind. He forgives us justly.
And all of nature rejoices.
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and glorified Himself in Israel.
The prophet personifies nature. All of nature exists for the benefit of those whom God forgives. Think of it! The forgiveness of our sins is the central and defining fact of our lives. Nature groans as a woman giving birth, waiting for our glory as God’s children to be revealed. If the human being is the crown of God’s creation as Moses teaches us at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, then surely our restoration to God as his children must be the crowning achievement of our God. All of nature testifies to this truth. Instead of worshipping the creation, God calls the creation to worship him. Everything that exists exists by God’s fatherly power and permission. And everything that God does he does for the sake of his elect, his Israel, his holy Christian Church on earth.
So we daily return to him who has blotted out our sins and formed us to be his own. He retains his authority to forgive us our sins right here on earth where we need it. In forgiving us he uproots the idolatry in our hearts and makes us holy. His authority to forgive us our sins is the object of our faith. We trust in it. We rejoice in it. We are reconciled to God. Amen