The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 10, 2013| Isaiah 49:14-16
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.” 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. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me. Isaiah 49:14-16
You reap what you sow in this life. That’s the way it is. You don’t need to be a Christian or read the Bible to know that when you do bad, bad happens to you and when you do good, good happens to you. It’s a law. It is built into the nature of things. It is a part of natural law.
People misunderstand this law. Manmade religions are based on a misunderstanding this law. Consider Hinduism, one of the oldest and most influential religions in the world. It can look at the most blatant form of injustice or into the deepest pit of poverty and say that the victim deserves it. That’s karma. What goes around comes around. He deserves whatever he is suffering. He must have done something wrong in a previous life. This explains his present misery.
False versions of Christianity also distort this natural law. Many who regard themselves as faithful Christians believe that they will find their way to heaven by obeying the law. It is widely assumed that the law is our guide to heaven. People assume that this is the essence of all religion. The Masonic Lodge, for example, clearly teaches salvation by obedience to the law. That’s what the white lambskin in their rituals symbolizes. But they don’t think that they’re promoting a religion. How can they teach salvation by works and deny they are teaching a religion? Easy! They assume that all religions teach salvation by works so when they do so they aren’t promoting any specific religion, but rather supporting what is good in all religions.
You get what you deserve. You reap what you sow. You do good and good happens. You do bad and bad happens. This is the natural law. The whole world can see it. But this simple truth is twisted and distorted. Why? Because it shows us all to be sinners who deserve the bad things that happen to us. If natural law is sound, all we need to do to see our sins is to look around us and see what troubles we suffer. Who is to blame? Natural law teaches us that we are all guilty as sin. This is why folks fight against the obvious. All of the pain and misery and suffering in the world is their own fault!
As a case in point, consider the ancient nation of Israel. God chose her. He called Abraham out of Ur and promised to bless him and his children. He delivered the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from slavery in Egypt. He gave them their own land. He sent them prophets who gave them his holy word. When they sinned, he led them to repentance and graciously forgave them. But, as the dog returns to his vomit, they returned to their sin again and again. They rebelled. They worshipped false gods. Baal worship was a constant feature of their corporate life. God gave them Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai to reveal to them his perfect will and they never got past the first one. Ignoring God’s word, persecuting the prophets, embracing the lies of the false religions of their neighbors, they rejected God’s promises and complained when things didn’t go their way.
You reap what you sow. Finally, God had had enough. He permitted them to suffer the natural consequences of their rebellion. God permitted the Assyrians to take them into captivity. Then the Babylonians took over from the Assyrians. God’s nation was destroyed. Jerusalem, God’s holy city, was in ruins. Her walls torn down, her temple leveled, her people taken captive over a thousand miles from home, she had reaped what she had sown. You do bad and bad will happen.
God warned her. But she wouldn’t listen. As we confess in the Catechism, “God threatens to punish all that transgress these Commandments. Therefore we should fear His wrath and not act contrary to them.” They disobeyed and God let them have it. And what did they say? “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.” Is that so? Because you broke it and God lets you look at what you broke you conclude that he’s abandoned you. Because God doesn’t fix it for you but leaves it broken he must have forgotten all about you!
You ignore his word, fall into bad habits, live to serve yourself, thinking of what you want before thinking of what anyone else wants, and treating God as if you are his boss instead of his child, and then, when you have made a wreck of things, you complain to God that he hasn’t cleaned up your mess! “You’ve forsaken me! You’ve forgotten me! You don’t love me! Why do you let bad things happen to good people?”
God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people. That’s the whole point. We deserve the troubles we face in life. But we’d rather point the finger at others than to admit our own sins. And just as our sin against our neighbor is always directed first against God, when we suffer the natural consequences of our sin we blame God. “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.”
Well, what do you want? A one sided relationship? You want a god to use when you need a bit of help with this or that, but not a God to serve and obey and honor with your life? As if you know better than God how you ought to live? You don’t want others to take advantage of you, to speak ill of you, to cheat on you, or to abuse you in any way. When they do you want them to face justice. Well then, why are you complaining about a bit of justice for yourself? If God has forsaken you it’s because that’s what you deserve. If God has forgotten you, you can’t blame him.
This was ancient Judah’s predicament. They feel sorry for themselves for getting what they deserve. They don’t want to admit that they deserve it. So what do they do? They blame God for forsaking them, for forgetting them, for permitting them to suffer the natural consequences of their disobedience and rebellion.
God doesn’t revoke the natural relationship between sowing and reaping. St. Paul writes, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) The New Testament clearly affirms the natural law. St. Paul writes in Romans 2,
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them. (Romans 2:14-15)
God doesn’t get us off the hook by repealing his law. Even the unbelievers who are their own law have God’s law written in their hearts. They may not know God, but they know he isn’t lawless. God’s love and faithfulness to us will not require him to violate his own law.
But he will be faithful. His mercy is beyond human measurement. “Can a woman forget her nursing child and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” It’s not likely. There is no stronger bond among us than the bond of a mother and child. This is why we recoil in shock at the crime of abortion on demand in America and we wonder what has happened to the conscience of a nation that would consider a woman liberated when she has obtained the right to have the child of her womb legally killed. It is against nature for a mother to forsake and forget her baby. But even if she should, God won’t. He cannot be unfaithful. He cannot make a promise and then renege on it.
Listen to what God says. He says, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It was commonplace in those days for a slave to have his master’s name inscribed on his body. It was also common for someone to tattoo the name of his god on his body somewhere. The Law of Moses forbade tattoos. Perhaps this was one reason for that. The tattoo signified one’s allegiance to a false god. But look at what our God does! Instead of making us inscribe his image on our bodies, he inscribes us on the palms of his hands! “Your walls are continually before me.” He’s talking about the walls of Jerusalem, torn down and left in ruins. He sees the walls of the holy city lying in the dust, the temple desecrated, his name blasphemed by the heathen, his glory trod underfoot, his holiness profaned, and as he looks at his people, shamed and humiliated, he sees what is inscribed on his hands.
We call it an anthropomorphism when the Bible speaks of God as if he were a man. Literally speaking, God is a spirit and has no hands. But this is no mere anthropomorphism. For God has become a man. He has the hands of a man. He took upon himself our human nature, body and soul. Jesus of Nazareth is God and man united in one person. It was over half a millennium between the time the words before us were first written and the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. But what’s a few hundred years to him who holds all time in his hands? He looked at his nail pierced hands and saw his faithfulness to his people. He looked at the suffering he would endure on the cross and from the virtue of that suffering he could promise to his broken people of old, “I will not forget you.”
St. John in Revelation (13:8) refers to Christ as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Christ’s crucifixion for our sins is an event that binds God to us forever and ever. It is his faithfulness to us. It is his remembrance of us. It is the forgiveness of our sins. We’ve ruined what God gave us. We’ve broken what he entrusted to us. We’re the child looking at the broken figurine on the floor scattered in hundreds of pieces. We broke it and we cannot fix it. It’s our fault and nobody else’s, but we cannot right our wrong. Being sorry fixes nothing.
But God does not leave us ruing our sins. Oh, he may let the natural consequences remain for a while. God chastens every son and daughter he loves. So he lets us see the harm we’ve done. But he does not view us according to the harm we have done. Our relationship with God is not defined by how we have ruined things. God looks at us as we are inscribed on his hands. That’s how he sees us. He sees the blood of Jesus. He sees his innocent Son offering up his holy life on the cross for us all. He sees the beauty of that spotless life and he takes that life and places it over us. The marks of the nails mark us as being forgiven of all our sins, washed clean of all our guilt, and set free from the power of death.
Look at what you have done! See the ruins of Jerusalem. See the temple leveled in the dust! Consider how you’ve gotten yourself into one mess after another, and don’t blame God for leaving you there. Blame yourself for putting you there! And then listen to what God has to say to you. God’s not looking at the ruins. So don’t you look either. God is looking at what is engraved in his hands. That’s where you must look. Look at the hands pierced for you. Can God offer up that life for you to take away your sin and when you come to him for forgiveness leave you guilty? Can he forsake you in your need? No. He cannot. See yourself as God sees you. And know that he will clean up your mess, rebuilt your walls, and right your wrongs. He has purchased a place for you to live where no sin will ever enter. That is your true home and Jesus will soon return to take you there. Amen.