Based on Isaiah 62:1-5. This sermon was preached at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie, on 1-17-2010 and in modified form at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 1-16-2010. Lord, speak to us and give us ears to hear, minds to understand, and hearts to follow where You lead. Amen.
I’m going to be using Fr. Paul’s sermon from last week as a launching pad for my sermon today, so a brief recap. Last week at about this time Paul was talking about the baptism of Jesus, and he said (among other things) that Jesus’ mission was to be “a light to the nations”. He said even though Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, he consented to it to demonstrate His commitment to doing the will of God the Father. And the will of the Father involved restoring humanity’s relationship with God.
Today I want to build on that by saying that just as Jesus’ mission was to be “a light to the nations” our mission as God’s people is to reflect that light to the nations. And in being a reflection of Jesus’ light, like him, we will also need to commit ourselves publicly to doing the will of the Father.
At the beginning of the service we prayed in the Collect: “Almighty God, Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth”. This is our calling. This is our mission.
That’s the big picture concept for this morning. But how do we begin to get a handle on it? Because there’s no way I can say to you, or to myself for that matter, “go forth and reflect Jesus”. How do we go about doing that?
The details of God’s game plan can be found in all four of our scripture readings for today, which is far too much to preach on all at once. So today I want to take a look at just the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah. This reading speaks of God’s commitment to us and love for us, and therefore contains critical information for laying a solid foundation for our faith. God’s love for us and plans for us are beyond comprehension, but if we don’t at least begin to get a handle on them, we have nothing on which to build a life of faith. This is foundational stuff.
Before I delve into that though, a little context on this reading is needed. Our reading from Isaiah is a small piece of a much larger prophecy that begins way back in chapter 56. The subjects that God and Isaiah have discussed prior to this passage include: (1) the fact that God’s salvation is open to anyone who believes in Him, even foreigners – salvation is not limited to the Chosen People of Israel; (2) the fact that God has had enough of Israel’s crooked political and religious leaders; (3) Isaiah agrees with God and prays a prayer confessing the nation’s sins; and (4) God tells Isaiah He longs for His people and has plans to redeem them. All of that is what leads up to our passage for today, and all of that is repeated again after this passage, which makes our reading THE central passage of what is essentially a ten-chapter-long prophecy.
So God was having issues with His people, both the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. (you’ll recall Israel had had a civil war and the nation was divided into north and south). So when Isaiah was young, both kingdoms had become prosperous. But when they had gained money and power they forgot about God who had blessed them. They started to be greedy, they started to oppress the poor and take advantage of slaves, they started bribing judges and perverting justice – things that were all forbidden by Jewish law. And then they started worshiping false gods, particularly fertility gods (human fertility, that is) which led them into all kinds of activity that was also forbidden by Jewish law.
They rebelled against God’s commands. As a result, as the law of Moses had warned, God stopped protecting and defending them. The Northern kingdom, which was made up of 10 of the original 12 tribes of the Jewish nation, fell to the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a particularly brutal nation. For them, winning the war alone was not enough. They forcibly deported the people of Israel, and the Northern kingdom was completely lost. A little while later, Samaria, which was sort of the buffer zone between North and South, also fell to the Assyrians. Then their armies went and camped on the border looking south. Things weren’t looking good for the two remaining tribes in the Southern kingdom.
This is the backdrop against which Isaiah’s prophecy was written. The prophecy is God’s message to the king and people of the Southern kingdom of Judah, pleading with them to confess their sins and return to God. And here’s what God says (follow along with me in the bulletin insert): God says…
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication [righteousness] shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.”
Here God is committing Himself once again to His people. He won’t be silent, and He won’t rest, until they’re saved. And not just saved, but vindicated. The word vindication here is sometimes translated righteousness, and I think that’s a better word for modern listeners. “until her righteousness shines out like the dawn” – makes more sense doesn’t it? God’s people will be just, they will be good, they will be godly – and that righteousness will shine until it is seen by nations and kings. As it says in the next verse,
The nations shall see your vindication [or righteousness] ,
and all the kings your glory…
God’s salvation and righteousness weren’t meant for just the Jewish nation – they were meant for the benefit of the whole world.
And then God turns to His people and He gets personal:
…you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD…
What a promise that is! A new beginning, a new name. And this isn’t the only place in Scripture where a new name is mentioned… it pops up again in Revelation. This gives us a hint that Isaiah’s message isn’t just for the ancient Jewish nation, but for generations to come as well. And God continues…
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Beulah (which means Married);
And God continues…
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
Can you imagine God… rejoicing… over us? He does, whenever we’re living in faith and love towards Him. He rejoices over us.
You can imagine the effect these words had on the people of Judah. The end of the story is that King Hezekiah and the people of Judah did repent and turn to God and were spared. God got rid of the Assyrians. Just like that. An army of 185,000 men gone literally overnight. The historical events are recorded in the book of II Kings, chapter 19, if you’d like to read more about it.
The people of Judah didn’t have to do a thing, other than trust God and do what He asked them to do, namely putting away their false gods and turning their hearts to keep His law. And His glory was made known through them.
So how does all this ancient history apply to us today? Just like Isaiah, we all grew up and spent our youth in a nation that is wealthy and powerful. Like Isaiah, we now live in a nation that revels in wealth and power and fame and is in the process of turning its back on God’s ways. Just like in Isaiah’s day, the rich are becoming richer while the poor are being exploited. Like in Isaiah’s day people are turning to false gods and following false teachers. Like in Isaiah’s day, many political and religious leaders are corrupt and leading people in the wrong direction. And like in Isaiah’s day, God longs for His people and has a plan to redeem them.
And so these words that Isaiah spoke to the people of Judah all those years ago He speaks to us, today. God says to us…
…you shall be called by a new name…
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD…
This is a message that so many churches need to hear. Every church I know has a history and a heritage that its people are proud of, and rightfully so. But often churches that have been around for many years begin to believe that their best years are behind them. If God’s people start thinking that our best days are behind us, we’re falling for a lie, because we’re forgetting God’s plan. God says He will not rest until the nations see and acknowledge the glory of His people.
Side note: this glory may or may not include wealth or increases in church membership. Jesus started His ministry with twelve people. They never had a building to meet in, they never had a budget, but they changed the world. God’s ability to display His glory does not hinge on church growth plans. End of side note.
So in light of God’s promises that we will shine with Christ’s glory so that He can be known among the nations, what should we do? Answers to that question can be found in our other three readings for today. For example, in the Psalm for today we read about worshiping and praising God, which is our primary task as the Church. BTW worship doesn’t mean just church on Sunday. It can mean humming your favorite hymn while doing the dishes, or chatting with God while you’re shoveling the sidewalk. But the Psalm tells us worship is what God’s people are all about.
From the New Testament reading we learn about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God gives to each believer to help build up His Church and bring His message to the world. (I’d love to do a sermon just on that passage, but not today.)
And in John’s Gospel we read about THE ONE most important thing we can do, THE ONE thing Isaiah’s people did…
John 2:5. Referring to her son Jesus, Mary says to the servants, “do whatever he tells you”. I have never, in all my life heard better advice than that. “Do whatever He tells you.”
In doing what our Lord tells us, we become salt and light in a dark and tasteless world. In doing what our Lord tells us, we open ourselves to being used by God to show His glory and His righteousness to a world that has lost sight of both. God grant us the grace to do whatever He tells us. AMEN.