Third Last Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| November 9, 2003| Isaiah 49:12-17
The book of the prophet Isaiah contains some of the most beautiful expressions of God’s faithfulness ever written. Isaiah, the prophet, wrote the book of prophecy that bears his name when the nation of Judah was facing fearsome enemies from without and deep spiritual corruption from within. The first part of this book speaks of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of her people. The second part of the Book of Isaiah speaks to the people in captivity. God’s chosen people had despised His pure gospel. They practiced syncretism – a kind of smorgasbord religion – in which they joined together the worship of God with the worship of idols. They persecuted the faithful prophets God sent. They traded away the truth of God for political and social respectability with their neighbors. The result was the destruction their country. God permitted enemies of His people to bring His people into disgrace. Jerusalem lay in ruins. Solomon’s Temple was utterly destroyed and desecrated. As the nation languished in captivity hundreds of miles away with only memories of her greatness, God spoke through Isaiah and promised release from captivity and return to the land.
As God promised to set Judah free from her Babylonian captivity, He also promised something far greater. We must never forget that the Holy Spirit is the primary Author of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit always speaks of Christ. This is so in the Old Testament as well as in the New. Throughout the book of Isaiah God speaks of the promised Christ as “My Servant.” God’s Servant will be born of a virgin. He will bring righteousness and peace to the nations. He will bring God’s glory to Israel and salvation to all the nations of the world. He is the God over all and yet He will appear in humble form. He will be the suffering Servant who silently bears the sin of the whole world.
We who call ourselves Christians and are baptized into union with Christ should take the words of our text as applying to us. For they do. They were written to comfort Christ’s church. The church of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament are the same Christian church. They share the same faith and are comforted by the same Spirit. He brings us joy when we are filled with fear, dread, shame, and guilt.
The joy that God brings to His people is so great that the prophet personifies the heavens, the earth, and the mountains as they all join together in joyful singing to God. Nothing can bring greater joy to this world than the gospel of Christ. When God’s people bring suffering and misery upon themselves by their unfaithfulness to God they wonder if God has utterly forgotten them. When our conscience tells us that, because we deserve to have God forsake us this must mean that He has forsaken us, God interrupts our lying conscience and sets us straight. “You are wrong,” He says. “You say that the Lord has forgotten you and forsake you. You say this because you know that this is what you deserve. You haven’t been faithful to your faithful God so you assume that your God cannot tolerate you any longer. You judge God by human standards and think Him to be lacking in mercy sufficient for you.”
That’s our mistake. We cannot judge God as if He were like we are. It is natural for sinners to assume that their faithlessness will influence God to abandon them. This is how humanity behaves, so this must be how God will behave. In response to this way of thinking, St. Paul writes, “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.” (Romans 3:3-4)
When we come face to face with our own guilt we must, if we are to survive, come face to face with God’s mercy as well. Otherwise we will leap to false conclusions about God and assume that He has become our enemy. Judah and Israel were suffering their just deserts while mourning their captivity far away from home. They assumed that God’s grace had run out. They would no longer be considered God’s children. Why else would God leave them in their condition? He must have decided to turn against them.
Impossible! Since the people were judging God by human standards, God responded by appealing to the strongest human bond there is: the love of a mother for her own child. God presents the argument in language too powerful to ignore or deny: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
We are horrified when we hear of women who murder their own children, but we shouldn’t be surprised. The so-called “right” to an abortion is not only the legalization of crime; it is the exaltation of what is most unnatural to the level of the status quo. What an abased people we Americans have become! There is no human love stronger than the love a mother has for the fruit of her own womb. To provide legal protection for the killing of the living but unborn makes those who provide it criminals of the first order. And when the Congress and President of the United States attempt to stop only the more gruesome form of abortion – the killing of the newborn child – godless judges presume to declare such legislation unconstitutional. What a tragedy! It is unthinkable that such a thing should have happened in a country that has always acknowledged God as the Author and Guarantor of life, but the unthinkable has happened. Yet even as we witness the natural love turning cold and we see the culture of death taking over, God reminds us that His faithfulness toward us cannot die. All that we cherish in this world can become corrupt. Our nation, our community, our congregation, our family, and our own personal lives are all subject to the sin that dwells within us. Our God cannot sin. He cannot lie. He cannot deny Himself. And it is by His own name, that is, by Himself that He has sworn to be faithful to us. He says, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.”
False teachers will grow stronger and bolder. As Jesus has warned us, “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.” When we see these things we will wonder if God has simply turned His people over to His enemies and abandoned them.
It looks that way. Many churches these days don’t even attempt to preach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. Christ – His crucifixion and resurrection, and His redemption of sinners – is ignored. Instead of the preaching of the cross most churches are teaching a so-called “gospel” of how to overcome obstacles to worldly success. The Bible is denied. The sacraments are despised. Preachers have become CEOs and congregations have become religious social clubs designed to make people feel good about being religious. The doctrine of sin is rejected and the doctrine of grace has become irrelevant. Confession and absolution have been replaced by what is called therapy. Repentance runs counter to the doctrine of self-esteem. Christians who labor under their sins run for help to counselors who stand for no truth beyond the benefit of temporary emotional wellbeing. Pastors acquiesce to the wholesale denial of biblical teaching by offering a pale imitation of the secular gospel, all in the name of Jesus.
Why does God permit such blasphemous attacks against His truth? Why does He sit idly by and watch as His truth is denied on every hand and nations that once embraced the gospel treat it with contempt? Why is He silent in the face of the open and impenitent defiance of His holy word even on the part of those who claim His holy name?
God is not silent. He is not powerless. He has not forgotten or forsaken His church. He sees what we cannot see. He sees our names written on His hands. He sees the covenant He made with us in Holy Baptism. When it comes to His promises to us, we feel the doubt in our own heart and we hear the denial of this world. He sees His children conformed to the glory of heaven. He sees what we cannot see. We see the walls of Jerusalem torn down and lying in ruins. He sees His holy Christian Church in her glory. We see and feel and fear our sins, especially our sins arising from doubt as we face eternity and know we are unworthy to face the holy God. God sees His suffering Servant and He remembers the words He gave to Isaiah to write:
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. . . 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 52:13, 53:4-6)
We tend to forget God’s promises when we need them the most. God never forgets. Our faith flickers and wavers. God’s faithfulness remains constant. We deny Him who loves us by our faithless thoughts, words, and deeds. He cannot deny Himself and His faithfulness endures forever and ever.
We stand on the edge of eternity. God invites us to consider the end of all things. But He tells us not to be afraid. When He joined Himself to our nature in the Virgin’s womb He became one with our blood forever. When He joined Himself to our sin on the cross His innocence conquered it and blotted it out forever. When He joined Himself to each one of us personally in Holy Baptism He made us partakers of His death and resurrection and He clothed us with the royal robes of righteousness by which we will enter heaven some day. So when we are plagued by doubts and when we must face our own personal death, the Servant who joined us in our birth and in our death will send us His Spirit so that we will not fall away from the only true and saving faith. Meanwhile, we will find our refuge in His gospel and sacraments. They reveal to us a love stronger than any mother’s love and a faithfulness that cannot fail.