Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 3, 2002| Isaiah 55:10-13
What God says to us is precious because God binds himself to what he says. God gives us his word and he keeps it. He keeps his word because he is faithful. He keeps faith with us. He won’t say something one day and then change his mind the next day. Several times in the writings of St. Paul, the apostle introduces an important message from God with the words, “This is a faithful saying.” The most beloved of those “faithful saying” statements of the apostle is recorded in 1 Timothy 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” You can depend on it. Why? Because God said it, that’s why. God binds himself to his own words in a way that only God can do. God cannot lie. He cannot break his word. He is not like we are. He is incapable of deceit, dishonesty, or double-mindedness. He’s not fickle. He’s reliable. When he gives you his word, he swears by himself. Everything you love and cherish in this world can and will be lost, but when God gives you his word, you will most certainly have what God says you will have.
Isaiah prophesied to the nation of Judah during a time a terrible political turmoil. The nation had, in a sense, lost its soul. Her leaders were corrupt. She was threatened by hostile powers on all sides. God would shortly punish the nation for abandoning his holy word and following after false teachings, false gods, and false promises. God would permit the Assyrians to take over the country and then later the Babylonians would carry most of the people off into captivity far to the east in what is today the country of Iraq. When Isaiah penned the words of our text, this had not yet occurred. But it would. And when it did, the nation would need to hear words of comfort. And they did. They heard the comfort of the gospel.
The comfort of the gospel isn’t for folks who are suffering because they’ve done no wrong. It’s for those who are suffering because they have done wrong. They are getting what they have deserved. They are reaping what they have sown. They know it. They’re sorry for it. But they can’t change the past or control the future. They can only mourn their sin, confess it, and ask God for his forgiveness. Simply put, the gospel comforts sinners.
When you suffer you must repent. This doesn’t mean that when you suffer God is punishing you. Folks who think that they can interpret specific instances of human suffering lay claim to a knowledge that is too far above them. Consider the words of God recorded by Isaiah just before our text:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Don’t try to figure out how God thinks. Instead, listen to what God says. He tells you quite clearly that his ways and thought are beyond your ken. Then why shouldn’t you take him at his word and be content with what he tells you instead of trying to figure out what he won’t tell you? It’s because you want to play God. That’s why. And playing God is what gets us into trouble in the first place! Who do we think we are that we can figure God out? As St. Paul says:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him? For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
The reason we should repent when we are suffering is not because God sends us suffering to punish us, but because it is only in repentance that we can find true comfort. It is only when the ground is broken and plowed that the seed can be planted that will take root and grow. It is only when the thorn in the flesh is painfully throbbing that the all-sufficient grace of God in Christ is clearly seen. It isn’t in the comfort of our full stomachs, protected pride, and well laid out plans that God’s word becomes the most precious treasure for us. It is when we are hungry, broken, and we must acknowledge that we aren’t in control of our own lives that we can see how much we need the word of God.
If Judah, having God’s prophets, promises, and covenant, needed to be humbled by God in order to receive God’s word in faith, how much more does America need to be humbled today. Patriotism is a virtue. It is nothing other than a love for one’s country. When America was attacked the patriotic spirit of most Americans was fanned into a bright flame. That’s a good thing. A love for our country in no way contradicts a love for God and God’s word. On the other hand, the popular patriotic fervor that pervades America today is not based on a humble submission to God and his holy word. It is rather a celebration of our own strength as people. The patriotic speeches that we hear invariably praise the goodness and tenacity of Americans. We are told to set aside all divisions of race and creed as we unite as one people under God. Consider the billboard just east of town on U.S. Highway 2 that reads, “God Bless America – United We Stand.”
But God doesn’t bless America because she is America. God doesn’t bless those who celebrate how good they are. God blesses those who humble themselves before him and confess their sins. God owes nothing to this country. God has made no covenant with this country. God could permit this nation we love to be utterly destroyed and he would bear no responsibility for doing wrong, because America deserves no better.
How are we any better than ancient Judah that was led away into captivity for her sins? Our nation bows down to false gods and persecutes those who confess the truth. Science teachers in Minnesota High Schools are routinely fired because they refuse to indoctrinate impressionable youths in the materialistic doctrine of Darwinian evolution. Abortionists who make a living by killing unborn children demand and receive protection from the government while those who cry out against the slaughter of the unborn are harassed by the same government. During the past twenty-nine years millions upon millions of unborn children have been legally butchered in this country. And we presume to think that God will continue to bless America? We think that our wealth, our freedom, our comfort, and our safety are ours because we are Americans and God must be an American, too?
No, when we suffer calamity we must repent of our sins. Whether in our personal lives, our families, or the life of our community or nation, the troubles we face and must endure are reminders that we are sinners living in a sinful world. The most troubling sin is not the evil of fanatical terrorists who worship the devil while calling him Allah, but the most troubling sin is the sin inside of you and me. It troubles us because it keeps us from God. It worships self. It says that we know best; we understand what is right; what we want is what God must do because we know our minds and if God loved us he would too.
That’s sin. And sometimes the only way God can get our attention is to bring us pain. No, he’s not punishing us. He’s getting our attention so that he can show us who he punished. He must show us because we won’t figure it out unless he shows us. We are all by nature as spiritually confused as were the Christians in Galatia to whom Paul wrote, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1) They were self-satisfied, you see. They were trusting in themselves and so they were trusting in sin. They were very much like Americans of our day as well as the folks to whom God sent the prophet Isaiah. Human nature being what it is, we depend on precisely those things that will disappoint us. And then, after our gods have failed us, we have no one but ourselves to blame because the God whose word cannot be broken warned us ahead of time.
And he tells us now. His word comes down from heaven like the rain and the snow. It falls on the ground and disappears. It’s almost as if it never was. But wait. This heavenly moisture causes the crop to come up from under the ground and to grow. Who knows just how it can happen as it does, but it does happen. When the ground is properly prepared, the moisture goes deep to where it is needed. God prepares us for his holy word and that word always achieves the purpose for which God sent it. It works faith in us. It does this by bringing Jesus our Savior right into our pain. The pain is our own sinful failure. Jesus is the one who bore our sins. He bore them as if he were the guilty, though he was and remained one with the Father whose word and honor and purity and holiness are beyond reproach or question. Still, the Holy One of Israel took the place of sinners and suffered. Listen to how Isaiah describes this amazing event.
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way. And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
It is this Jesus, whose suffering was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who comes and makes his home in us when he gives us his holy word. This is why the word of God is so powerful to change us from the inside out. This is why the word of God is most powerful when we are the weakest. The power of God’s word is the power of the innocent suffering and death of God’s beloved Son. The power of God’s word to change our hearts, our minds, and our lives is the power of his suffering as he faced the sin that defeats us, crushes us, and makes us afraid. The word of God that comes down from heaven is never weak. It is always strong. It never fails in the thing for which God sent it, and that is always to bring sinners like you and me the comfort, the peace, and the new life that come from sins being forgiven.
The word of God produces fruit in us. This fruit is love because God is love. The love of God is known only through faith in Jesus Christ. The written word and the preached word and the sacramental word are all the vehicles of Christ, the Incarnate Word. In other words, the Bible gives you Jesus, the sermon gives you Jesus, your baptism gives you Jesus, and the Lord’s Supper gives you Jesus. Jesus is the one who humbly submitted to his Father’s will. His submission won for us God’s approval. By bearing our shame, he brought us glory. This is the teaching of the word that comes down from above. It teaches us that the sins that crush us are washed away by Jesus’ blood. The Holy Spirit teaches us this and in his holy teaching he turns our lives around. He persuades us that God’s word cannot be broken or set aside. In the pain of discovering and facing our sin he soothes our pain with the forgiveness of sins. When we are the weakest we are the strongest. God has seen us in our shame and he hasn’t rejected us, but he has embraced us and loved us in Christ.
That’s power. That’s the power to believe and to live and to worship God. That’s the power to face sin and death and hell itself. To know that God has seen me at my very worst when I won’t even dare look at myself and that he has washed me clean by forgiving me my sins for Christ’s sake, why there is no word from anyone anywhere that can compare to this word. There is no power from any source that is as great as this power. For it is powerful to save everyone of us and God’s word does not return to him empty. Amen.