Friday, February 23, 2007

Sermon on Isaiah 51:4-6

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 51. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

For Christians who follow the annual cycle of the historic Church Year, today is the Last Sunday in the Church Year, the end of a cycle. Why do we use the calendar of the Church Year to mark time? The annual cycle of the Church Year is designed to put the time of our earthly lives into the perspective of God’s timing and His working for our salvation. So every year in December, the church begins anew with the season of Advent, beginning next Sunday. It’s a new cycle in the ongoing remembrance of Jesus Christ’s life and His working for our salvation. Advent is when we remember Jesus’ coming for us, in the past, present, and future. As the church moves toward Christmas, we call to mind Christ’s first coming to us in the manger—to enter humanity on our behalf, to redeem us from sin. We also call to mind the daily, weekly coming of Christ to us in His Word, and in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. And finally, we call to mind the future second coming of Christ to us, on that Last Day we call judgment day. The Day when Christ will usher in a new heavens and a new earth by His Almighty power.

But today, the end of the Church Year, we are also looking forward in expectation. The expectation of the End of all Times, the coming of Judgment Day. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Despite this clear statement, many Christians and non-Christians alike attempt to forecast the time or the day that the end of the world will come. But we, though we make no promises about when Jesus will come—we live in the constant expectation of His coming. How do we live in expectation? The cycle of the Church Year helps to place reminders of His coming before us, as each Church Year begins and ends in this hope, this expectation. We do not end each year that passes in discouragement that He has not yet come. Rather again and again we call to memory the story of His birth, life, death and resurrection and how it leads into our renewed life as the Church of God’s people. So just as we end this Church Year and renew our watching and waiting for the Lord and His coming, we hear the reading from Isaiah 51. God is calling His people to attention:

“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.

These words of comfort were probably first heard by the people of Judah sometime after they had gone into exile in Babylon, several hundred years before Christ came. These Old Testament believers were also waiting—waiting in expectation and hope. They were waiting for the restoration of Jerusalem or Zion, and for their promised deliverance from their captors. They were waiting for the promised Messiah, whom we now know in Christ Jesus. They, just like us today, needed the constant reminder that God is faithful to His promises, and that His promised deliverance would in fact come, although it seemed to be delayed. Don’t we often find ourselves wondering when Christ will ever return? I wonder if there’s ever been a generation that didn’t think that their own time was the most suitable time for Jesus to come back.

And the warning signs are certainly all around us. An earthquake here in Hawaii literally shook some of us out of our sleep, while some who were awake were thrown into a panic about where to flee for safety. Jesus said there would be earthquakes, wars, and rumors of wars, and all kinds of troubles in the last days before He returns. We certainly have rumors of wars with all the news of missile testings in North Korea and Iran. For many, these signs of the end cause us to fear and worry. For some they may go by unnoticed, as we seem to still live in relative peace and security. But the Lord calls us to constant watchfulness and readiness. When His promised help seems far off, He reminds us in verse 5, “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

For Israel to hear these words, it must have brought great joy and comfort. God’s righteousness is coming soon! His salvation is almost here! This was truly a time of expectation. But sometimes our expectation gets mixed with doubt and skepticism. Undoubtedly some of the Israelites who first heard this doubted that God’s salvation was really on the way. It always seemed like He was taking so much time, or it seemed like He’d never come. Don’t we sometimes think this way? We begin to think that God is slow in keeping His promises, or maybe that He’s forgotten. But Scripture reassures us that He is not slow to keep His promises, but rather He is patient so that more people may repent and believe. When Isaiah wrote these words, it was still a few hundred years before Christ actually came. But He did come! And God kept His promises. Right on His divine timing. And now we can truly say that God’s righteousness has already drawn near to us and that His salvation has come! For New Testament believers, we have the fulfilled promise of God’s salvation. We can look back in faith to see what Isaiah was foretelling about the future.

Now we have seen what it meant that Isaiah said in verse 4, “My justice will become a light for the nations.” We have seen the justice of God shown in the death of Jesus Christ, where He was lifted up on a cross to become both the punishment for our sins, and also the Light of the nations. Here God’s love was lifted up on a pole, displayed to all the world, showing forth His love, His light. Showing that God brings light out of darkness, hope and forgiveness out of His death. We are no longer waiting to see God’s righteousness draw near; rather it has already come in Christ Jesus. His righteousness and salvation is here for us now! Through faith in this light of the world, we have salvation here and now. God’s arm has brought justice, not by punishing us as our sins deserve, but by having that punishment fall upon Christ our Lord.
Verse 5 has caught my attention recently, especially after my trip to Madagascar, and then coming here to the Hawaiian islands. It says “The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.” It was truly a blessing to see the faith of the Lutherans on the island of Madagascar, and their hope in God. I have been equally blessed to see the faith of those I have served here in the Hawaiian islands. I don’t know why this passage is included in Isaiah, except maybe to say that even in the far reaches of the earth, the islanders put their hope in God. And truly, where better to place your trust, than in the arm of the mighty Lord, who alone is powerful to save us? Let us always pray that here in the islands and all around the world, that people would continually look to God and wait in hope for His arm.

These verses in Isaiah 51 are a call to attention for all believers, just as they were a call to Israel, to be watchful and ready for the coming of the Lord. Verse 6 says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.” Look around you, the verse is saying. See if there is anything in this world that you can put your trust in. Even the things that seem solid and enduring, the heavens and the earth, are going to pass away. The last day is coming speedily, just as the Lord promised Israel that His salvation would come speedily. It may seem to be a frightening thing to imagine the heavens vanishing like smoke, or the earth wearing out like a garment. Its inhabitants will die like flies. Without faith in God who saves us, this could be terrifying. But knowing what God has planned for us, knowing that He will create a new heavens and a new earth, we can have confidence that He will safely deliver us through that day. This verse is setting up a contrast between the temporary things of this world that are bound to pass away, and the eternal things that will always endure. God’s salvation will last forever, His righteousness will never fail.

How easy is it to forget this simple truth? We may think, “Oh yes, of course His salvation is eternal.” But we live and act as if other things are more important, and as if God’s salvation and righteousness don’t help us here and now. But if we put things into perspective, if we hear Isaiah’s call to attention, we will know that the eternal things of God are to be our chief focus and priority. His salvation and the righteousness or innocence we have been given by faith are the things that ought to shape our lives. With the security of God’s everlasting salvation, what can any man do to us? What hardship or danger can we not endure? What sorrow or pains can separate us from God’s unfailing righteousness? To know that every sin of ours is forgiven, to know that life eternal is our sure and certain promise, even more certain than the heavens above or the earth below. To know that our hope and trust in God will not be disappointed. God will never fail in keeping His promises. Living with this knowledge and faith, our lives are transformed with a new boldness that we could not have on our own. A boldness to wait in expectation, unphased by the world in turmoil around us. Showing a confidence in Christ that will be a witness to all those who have wrongly set their hope on things that do not last, and cannot save them.

How can we be ready for Jesus’ return? How are we to be alert for that Last Day? By continually listening to the Lord in His Word, by hearing His call to attention and faith. By looking to His unfading light and hoping in the strength of His arm. We know that He can never fail us. We have seen His salvation in Christ Jesus, and we know that this is one thing that is sure and forever. By putting our trust in the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus, we will not be found sleeping when our Lord comes. We look to no one else but Christ, our Light and our hope. This is how we are watchful and ready for His coming. We know that even though the world pass away and fade around us, there is the everlasting righteousness of God that never fails. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

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