The Church in the Palm of God’s Hands
The Twenty Fifth (Third Last) Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 8, 2009| 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? Though she 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
The end of the world is at hand. Today is the third last Sunday of the church year. As we come to the end of the liturgical calendar the Scripture lessons appointed for each Sunday focus on the end of the world. Today we consider the suffering of Christ’s Church before the end comes. Next week the theme will be Judgment Day. The week after next, the last Sunday of the church year, we will consider that Christ will return when we least expect it.
But to say that the end of the world is at hand is surely to raise a smirk or two. How long has it been that the church has been living in the end times? Almost two thousand years. That’s a long time to be on the edge of eternity! Time marches on and there is no end in sight. The Church appears to be shrinking. Christians wonder where the Church is headed. Dark times have fallen upon us.
The twentieth century was touted as the Christian Century when it was new. It appeared that the Church was on the march all over the world. Enlightenment that emanated from the Church would shine throughout all nations. War would become a thing of the past. A true brotherhood of man would emerge from the old order.
Well, that’s not quite what the twentieth century delivered, is it? Tyrants and murderers of unparalleled viciousness arose all over the world. Such men as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot murdered millions. Christianity wasn’t on the march. It was in retreat.
The moral degeneration of the world was not as bad as the inner decay of the Church. False teachings that in times past were espoused only by open enemies of the Church now found fertile soil within the Church itself. Denials of the Holy Trinity, the true deity of Christ, Christ’s vicarious atonement, and every other holy mystery of the Christian faith became common among respected clergy within the Church. Dark times have indeed fallen upon Christ’s Church.
And where is God? What is he doing? Why does he permit his church to fall into such distress? It’s as if he has been ignoring his church for quite some time now.
So it seems. So it seemed to God’s people of the Old Testament. The Old Testament Church, also known as Israel, had fallen far from its glory days under King David. A civil war divided Israel and Judah into two kingdoms and then foreign powers invaded both countries and brought most of God’s people into captivity several hundred miles away. The former glory of Jerusalem was a dim memory. Those who persecuted God’s people got away with it. God didn’t care. So it seemed.
Well, they got what they deserved. It’s not as if God didn’t warn them. They had flirted with idolatry all along and often fully embraced it. God had been faithful to the covenant but his covenant people had not. They ran after every new and exciting teaching. They compromised God’s truth for the sake of social respectability. Their kings relied on politics rather than on God’s word, ignoring the prophets, in fact, persecuting them. They got what they deserved.
But a Christian doesn’t believe this. Oh, we believe that we deserve to suffer on account of our sins. We believe that justice calls for some kind of retribution. Good cannot abide evil, after all, and a good God must punish sin. We believe this.
But we don’t believe that we get what we deserve. That’s what makes us Christians. This is what makes us unique among all the religious people of the world. We don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we receive God’s grace. It is his underserved kindness. It is love that we don’t deserve.
But where is it? It remains hidden. So Zion cries out to her God. “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.” She looks around and sees little if any evidence that God cherishes his church and she leaps to the conclusion that he doesn’t. He has forgotten his people. He has abandoned the holy city. He has left her in her well deserved shame.
But he hasn’t. And he won’t. He cannot. It is against his very nature. God’s faithfulness goes straight to his very essence. Love and loyalty combine to form an unbreakable faithfulness. God speaks. He binds himself to what he has spoken. He invites his people to bind him to what he has spoken. He invites faith to demand what he has promised. Oh, not with the disrespect of a spoiled child who insists on having his way; but with the confident plea of the son or daughter who knows that our God is incapable of breaking his word.
The prophet asks if a woman could forget her own nursing child. It’s conceivable. It’s against nature. No human bond is stronger than the bond of mother and child. One of the signs of a particularly decadent culture is that the killing of the unborn child is touted as a woman’s right, as if a woman is shown respect by giving her the right to attack her very womanhood. A mother will not forget her own baby. She will do whatever it takes to protect and nurture the child of her own womb. For this is what a woman does.
But a woman could turn against her own flesh and blood. She could toss aside her own child. She could. But God couldn’t. The nature of men and women is fallen and even the most fundamental human relationship can be twisted and turned into something perverted. But God cannot sin nor can he be tempted to sin. Though a mother could forget and abandon her own child, the LORD God cannot and will not forget his people.
He chose them. He called them. He redeemed them. They are his. And they will be avenged. They will be vindicated. They were right to believe that they don’t receive what they deserve. They don’t judge their relationship with God by their temporary status. They judge by God’s word.
This is the greatest art of a Christian. It’s not primarily a matter of intelligence or knowledge or even piety. It’s a matter of stubborn faith. We stand where we stand with God on the basis of God’s word.
See! Listen up! Pay attention! God is talking. He says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.” I have inscribed you. Where? On the palms of my hands. As the old Negro spiritual says, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” He is in charge. Not as an absent landlord who hopes expenses don’t take up all of the revenue. Not as a disinterested manager who’s looking for a different job. Not as a jaded policeman who knows that justice is but a word. Not as a tyrant who uses power for power’s sake or as a bully who enjoys to impose against the other’s will or as an idealistic social worker who has yet to learn how things work in the real world. He is in charge as the one who knows all things, sees all things, and loves his church with a love that cannot fail.
He looks at his almighty hands and what does he see? His church! “Your walls are continually before Me.” He sees Zion’s walls, though they be in rubble. He sees her beauty, though she appear to the whole world to be ugly. He sees the purity of her confession, though religious charlatans dominate the airwaves hawking a successful living gospel of personal power and financial prosperity. God sees the true Church, hidden beneath sin, deceit, and corruption.
He looks at his hands and he sees his Church. There is where she was purchased, as the nailed pierced through the flesh of God, nailing him to a wooden cross, lifting him up to mock and torment. There, as the fallen and apostate church screamed out it defiance of their rejected God, as they blasphemed his holy name, as the abomination of desolation desecrated the holy city by rejecting the holy one of God; there it was that God’s compassion drowned all of our sins in the depth of the sea.
Love is not a feeling inside of us. It’s more than that. It’s more that what a mother feels for her dear child. Divine love is the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He willingly received what we, his people, deserved. The suffering of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is where the people of God were inscribed indelibly into his hands. The almighty power of God is now eternally wedded to the love of God. There in the palms of Christ’s hands is the eternal sign of God’s faithfulness. It cannot be compromised. God cannot abandon his Church.
This is the word of God. Therefore, it cannot fail. Lies fail. Lies parading as truth fail. False christs and false prophets fail. The crowd runs after them. They blame God when the idols abandon them, having confused their idols with God. They confuse their idols with God because they don’t listen to God. They shut out his word. They tell God the way it is; they refuse to let God tell them. And so when their idols fail they cry and moan and lament, “The LORD has forsaken me! My Lord has forgotten me.”
But they’re wrong. They have confused the true God with the false gods of this world. And what does the true God do to these idolatrous people? What lesson does he teach them? What chastisement does he administer?
He calls them home. He invites them as a mother invites her little children. She embraces them. She loves them no matter what. So our God calls us home and says to us: “See here. Look at my hands. There you are, inscribed on my palms. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
As the end of the world draws closer and closer the Church will suffer. Mockery from the outside, false teaching from the inside, and, of course, the doubts about God that our sinful flesh will toss up at our faith as if to challenge the truth of the gospel itself. It won’t get better. It will get worse.
And until the end of the world Zion’s walls will be before the face of God. What the world cannot see, God sees. What is considered old and out of date is in fact eternally new. The nail scarred hands of Jesus are powerful to save. He who bore the shame and guilt of our sin binds himself to us. He forgives us. He identifies with us. He refuses to leave us. He cannot forget us.
So we gather together as his Church, as his holy Zion, and we rejoice to see how he rejoices in us. He takes away our shame. He brings us to heaven. Even so, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen