God’s Grace and Human Thinking
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity| October 21, 2012| Isaiah 65:1-2
“I was sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that was not called by My name. I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts.” Isaiah 65:1-2
Several years ago there was an advertizing campaign on television promoting educational opportunities for the poor. At the conclusion of the presentation were the words, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” How true! And yet how common it is that minds are wasted!
This can happen in a variety of ways. St. Paul warns us against one of the most obvious examples in today’s Epistle Lesson when he says: “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Getting stoned, whether on booze or pot or some other kind of drug, is a sin against God who calls on us to love him with our whole mind. We should think about God. We should think about what God says to us, what God does for us, and what God wants us to do. We should think of his promises centered in Jesus Christ, his Son, our Savior.
The great Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, popularized the idea of faith as a leap. The leap of faith believes what it believes without any proof. It is true that we don’t require scientific proof. We don’t require material evidence for spiritual reality. But faith is not a leap into the unknown. Faith is resting, not leaping. It is resting secure in the very words of almighty God.
God speaks. The only God who exists is the God who spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The only God who exists is the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The only God who exists is the Holy Trinity: the Father who sent his Son to be the bridegroom for his Church; the Son who gave up his life for his Church and by his holy precious blood purchased the wedding garment that makes her holy; the Holy Spirit who clothes us in this garment in Holy Baptism, presenting us to God as saints. All other gods are idols. Our lives, our bodies and minds and all that we have, are gifts from this one and only God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Faith is not irrational. Faith rejects the irrational retreat into the bottle and the irrational leap out into a spiritual void. Faith is born, nourished, and confirmed by what God says. Everything God says is faith’s food. To close one’s mind to God’s word is to shut the door to faith and to lose everything that faith receives.
A generation ago, a bright academic wrote a book critiquing modern education entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. Allan Bloom bemoaned the ignorance of students about their own history and culture and traditions. In skimming through it one might think of the old slogan, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” That pretty much describes our nation today.
What Bloom saw in the academy is especially true in the religious realm among nominal Christians. Religious knowledge is at an all time low. The average American knows very little about the Bible, its history and teachings, the history of the Church, or the God who became incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. People who would be surprised, upset, even angered at the suggestion that they are not Christians don’t have the first idea of what a Christian is. Politicians market pretentions to faith as political currency to buy elections as a gullible public confuses religious pretence with the genuine article. What’s going on here?
Precisely what God described through his prophet Isaiah so long ago: “I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts.” The key to understanding the wasting away of the mind is that it begins by closing one’s mind to God’s word. Jesus tells a story to illustrate it. A king gave a marriage feast for his son. Those who were invited scorned the invitation, mistreating, even killing those sent to invite them. This describes how Israel treated the God who chose her, called her out of Egypt, gave her his law, and sent to her his prophets. Israel despised, scorned, and rejected her God.
They walked in a way that way that was not good, according to their own thoughts. They replaced God’s word with their own thoughts. But they regarded themselves as children of God. Who could challenge them? Did not God choose them as his own people, investing his divine dignity in being faithful to them? Did he not call Abram out of Ur, lead him to the Promised Land, and promise this land to his descendents after him? Did he not promise that in Abram’s seed all the nations of the world would be blessed? Did he not repeat his promise to Isaac and to Jacob? Did he not lead the children of Israel out of slavery through the miraculous crossing over the Red Sea on dry ground? Did he not guide them into the land promised to their father, Abraham? Did he not call them by name? They were his. They were children of the living God. Were they not?
But God stretched out his hand to them and they rejected it. All day long he appealed to them. They ignored him. God spoke and they shut their ears. They imitated the religious practices of their neighbors who did not know God. They claimed to be holy while despising the words of the God who called them to be holy. They said that God would not desert them. They belonged to him. How could God abandon them?
So says the apostate church of every age. She falls away from the clear teaching of God’s word. She ignores the inspired words of the prophets and apostles. She thinks she knows better. Then she presumes to claim the very status she has rejected. She confuses grace with indulgence, abusing it, distorting it, and claiming it as justification for her own sinful and self-serving opinions.
God rejected unbelieving Israel. The only valid response to God’s grace is faith. But faith, if it is to be genuine, must oppose the thinking of fallen humanity. It must go against the crowd. It must be countercultural. What everyone thinks makes sense is precisely what God’s word denounces. Why should I have to wear the wedding garment provided by the king? What wrong with my own clothing? Listen to what the prophet Isaiah says in the chapter preceding our text:
But we are all like an unclean thing,
And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;
We all fade as a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind,
Have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
To admit that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags is to admit that when we do the very best we can do we do what is wrong. This is no excuse. This is an admission. We cannot bring ourselves up to God by thinking the right thoughts because our own thinking is polluted by sin and our thoughts direct us away from God. He must change the way we think. He must alter our attitudes at the very core of our being. Those who presume to claim a status before God based on their own works or efforts or spiritual prowess reject the very God they claim to worship. Israel didn’t admit that she was committing idolatry when she adopted the idolatrous religious practices of her neighbors. She just called it the pure worship and thought that calling it so made it so. God sent her trouble when she fell into idolatry. She repented and God forgave her and restored her but her repentance was always short lived. She fell again and again and again. Then, when God sent his Son, most of Israel rejected him. Their own thoughts were too precious for them. They would not humble themselves before God.
Then what happened? God tells us here in our text: “I was sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me.” Most of the ancestors of the people gathered here today wandered around in spiritual darkness, without any desire to know the true God. The Europeans were steeped in superstitious ignorance and they were quite content with their superstitions. They trusted in lies that condemned them to hell and they had no interest in the truth. They didn’t find God because they sought him out. They weren’t even looking for him. God found them. That’s the way grace works. As we sing,
Lord, ’tis not that I did choose thee
That, I know, could never be
For this heart would still refuse thee
Had thy grace not chosen me.
Those who weren’t looking for God found him. Those who claimed to be his children lost him. The difference is faith. Faith lives on grace. Grace is revealed only in Christ. Christ is known only by his word. So we cling to the word of God and in so doing we are kept by the Holy Spirit in the one true faith.
People assume that everyone who calls himself a Christian is a Christian. I was watching a newscast the other day when the anchor informed us that Salt Lake City was the most Christian city in America. I knew right away how they had determined this. They had asked people. They polled them. If you said you were a Christian that made you a Christian. Since 80% of the people in Salt Lake City say they are Christians this must mean that 80% of the people in Salt Lake City are Christians. But that’s utter nonsense. Only a fraction of that number are Christians because most of the people in Salt Lake City are Mormons and Mormons are not Christians. They worship a god who allegedly used to be a man and then became a god by doing good deeds. They say that you, too, can become a god and rule over your own world if you join their so called church and follow their rules. They may be patriotic Americans, but Mormons are by no means Christians. But they say they are. And that settles it as far as the news on TV is concerned.
But it doesn’t settle it for God and God’s opinion is the only one that matters. We don’t decide for ourselves what it means to be a Christian. God does. Only those who trust in the blood of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, as the fully sufficient sacrifice to take away all of their sins, are genuine Christians. Only those wearing the wedding garment belong to God. They can say what they want and claim what they want and think what they want but God says that those who reject his word are not his children. They belong to the evil one. God stretched out his hands for Israel on the cross, as he suffered for their sins. They wouldn’t hear. They wouldn’t listen. They had their own system of morality and it was quite adequate for them, thank you very much. They didn’t need the blood of their God to be shed for them. They knew better than to trust in a bloody sacrifice offered up on a cross. And so they are no longer God’s people. Neither is anyone who presumes to work his way to heaven, thus scorning the pure and holy obedience of Jesus and his vicarious suffering and death.
If God rejected Israel for rejecting their Savior what will he do to the apostate church? What will he do to the church that substitutes its own thoughts for his word? When people who call themselves Christians deny what God’s word says about marriage being a lifelong union of one man and one woman and the only place where sexual intimacy is permitted; when people who call themselves Christians say that there are other paths to God other than through faith in Christ, the Savior of sinners; when people who call themselves Christians insist that we adapt our understanding of the Bible so that it will conform with whatever modern so called science teaches as so much secular dogma; will these unchristian views thereby become Christian because Christians hold to them? By no means! It’s the other way around. Christians who hold to them will no longer be Christians. It matters what we think. Following our own thoughts will surely lead us right out of the Church.
Now is the time of grace. God cries out to us, who were not called by his name, and says, “Here I am.” And here he is. He is here where we confess our sins and unworthiness and call upon him for mercy. He who bore all our sins in his body on the cross and shed his blood to forgive us is here, forgiving us personally and repeatedly and keeping us in the true faith by the power of his holy word. He humbles us in our own hearts and minds, replaces our ignorant human wisdom with true faith, and claims us as his own. He clothes us in the righteousness of Christ and makes us Christians. We are Christians, not because we say so but because he says so. Amen