Monday, December 01, 2014

Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9, for the 1st Sunday in Advent, "Forgotten and Remembered"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Please take out your bulletin insert and compare the Collect, or prayer of the day for this Sunday with our Old Testament reading. It invites God to “stir up Your Power, O Lord and Come…” just like the reading calls God to “rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence”…and talks about God’s mighty power causing the “nations to tremble at your presence.” Both are prayers for God to arise and take action, especially as Isaiah feels as though God has been silent, He has hidden His face from His people because of their sins, and the enemies of Israel were triumphing over them. The kind of action Isaiah has in mind for God recalls Mt. Sinai—the thundering, fires, and earthquakes. Powerful signs and judgment to drive away the enemies of God’s people. This would bring the rescue his people hoped for.

However, as Isaiah continues to pray, he is perplexed by their sins. He realizes they’re getting what they deserved, and his prayer that was so bold at first, transforms into a humble prayer of confession. This also is echoed in our collect, which prays to God, “by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance.” When Isaiah confesses the depths of their sin before God, he says: “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”

Do you ever think this way about your sins? That they are a “threatening peril”, or that we’re melting in the hand of our guilt? Or is it more likely that we are comfortable with most of our sins, and don’t see the danger in them? Sometimes God stirs up fear in us, to realize that sin is dangerous, so we don’t become complacent and let it take root in us. Sometimes the consequences of sin serve as a wake-up call to stir us out of a spiritual sleep, and realize that we have to break off this sinning, before it ruins us. But then, like Isaiah, we might feel utterly helpless to break away from our sins. He sees the futility of trusting in righteous deeds or good works, when he realizes that these are nothing more than filthy rags or a polluted garment before God. We should learn from this that good works, while expected of us, are a false comfort if we hold them up before God and think that they can rescue us from sin.

So while there’s no digging ourselves out of our own hole, there is a message of hope for all captives and the prisoners of sin. In chapter 61, Isaiah prophesied of this hope and deliverance, as the coming year of the Lord’s favor. A time of God’s grace and mercy. Our hope is not in getting ourselves out of the mess of sin we have created, but that God sent the Messiah, the Promised One, to deliver us. While we cannot break the chains of our sins, Jesus, the Messiah, can. The grief or heartache of feeling overwhelmed by our sins, or impossibly burdened by their guilt, is lifted by Jesus, who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities” (Is. 53:4-5). By His stripes we are healed. The year of His favor is judgment for God’s enemies, but comfort for those who mourn.

To take full stock of our sin, as rebellion against God—is to see that they are poison to us. Whether it’s lying, that sows distrust and unfaithfulness, or whether it’s greed that sows jealousy and discontentment, or whether it’s anger that sows revenge and violence—sin And to measure the awful cost of sin—or to even realize that sin pollutes our righteous deeds also—is to measure the great need we have for a Savior. It’s to call out to God for help, because “we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” This phrase of Isaiah describes us like a withered and dry leaf, crumbling and blowing away in the wind. Again because of sin. The Psalmist says in Psalm 103:14–15 that the Lord “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” God knows that we’re frail and mortal like the leaf, the grass, and the flower. God knows that we cannot stand before His judgment on our own. The only way we can face Him is to be cleansed and forgiven of our sins. To have our record cleared before God by Jesus, the Messiah—who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

So Isaiah’s prayer wraps up with an appeal to God as our Father, knowing that we’re as nothing before Him. Like unshaped clay, to be molded by His hands for His purpose. And he pleads that God would not be so terribly angry, and remember not iniquity forever. Do you see what He is asking God to do? He’s asking God to forget! To forget our sin and guilt! How does God reply? In chapter 65, God responds to the prayer, with two different answers. First, judgment for those who persist in rebelling against Him, and continue in their sin—and second, mercy and deliverance for the remnant, the chosen of God, who put their trust in Him. The Old Testament prophets tell us that God does want to forgive the sins of those who turn back to Him.

Jeremiah 31:34 speaks of the New Covenant that God was going to bring, not, by the way, like the covenant Israel broke at Mt. Sinai—but a covenant where He will forgive our sins and remember them no more. Because of the New Covenant that Jesus made in His own blood, shed at the cross for our sins, God is truly able to forget. He is able to forget our sins, and separate them from us as far as the East is from the West. He no longer remembers them against us. The sins that left us melting in fear, guilt, and judgment, are taken away in Jesus’ death, so that we are healed by His wounds! We also can pray for God to forget our sins, to forgive and forget them. It’s a total renovation of our status before God. Instead of being dressed in the filthy rags of our sin, Jesus gives us His righteousness instead, to wear as a white garment, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. In baptism we’re stripped of the old sinful nature and clothed anew with Jesus Christ. He makes us to stand before God, by His righteousness, and not our own. And because of this, we don’t wither away like a dry leaf, but instead we stand like a “tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). We can grow and flourish before the Lord because of our new life in Jesus Christ.

And so this answers the doubting and uncertain question that Isaiah raised in verse 5: “Behold, you were angry and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” The answer is that we can be saved, by trusting in the Lord. However great our sins measure, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He is the answer to our sins. God is the only One big enough to handle all the “baggage” of your sin and guilt, to take the heavy burden off your weak and weary shoulders, because He knows it would crush us. The reality of what Jesus has done for us transforms our doubting and uncertain questions into the faithful and certain confidence that St. Paul expressed for us in 1 Timothy 1:15 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Paul could say that the worst of sinners could be saved, because that’s what he considered himself for all his persecution of Christians and his rebellion against God before he was struck on the road to Damascus.

There’s one more little tail end of verse 9 still to mention. After asking God to forget our sins, which we’ve just discussed—Isaiah asks God to remember something also. “Behold, please look, we are all your people.” Your people. It’s the language of God’s covenant. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. He’s calling God to remember the covenant, the promise He made with them, and to have mercy. And God does remember His people. Like Isaiah we may go through periods of darkness and despair in life; we may at times be overwhelmed by our sins; or cry out for God’s rescue from our enemies. But it is not because God has forgotten us. God has made a new covenant with us in Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins. God will remember His covenant, He remembers His promises, and He will deliver His people. Jesus coming to earth was the proof that God remembered His covenant. That He would deal with our enemies—first among them being sin. That He would deliver us to serve Him without fear (Luke 1:72-74). If we were once trapped in the despair and imprisonment of our sins, and cried out in fear for help—Christ Jesus has brought us to the joyous answer that God has forgiven and forgotten our sins in Him. He has remembered our helplessness and our need, and He comes to set us free. Our sins have been forgotten! We are remembered in Christ Jesus! Give thanks to the Lord for He is good! His mercy endures forever. Amen.


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Read Isaiah 63:7-64:12. What are God’s people experiencing, that they cry out for this help? In Isaiah 64:1-3, how does this recall the actions of God at Mt. Sinai? Exodus 20:18-21
  2. How does Isaiah’s realization of their own sinfulness, even in the best efforts of “all their righteous deeds” (v. 6)—how does this make the apparent silence or hiddenness of God seem all the more bitter? Cf. Ezra 9:13. What does v. 6 show us about the danger of trusting in our righteous deeds for salvation? Why is even our best tainted with sin?
  3. Do we measure our sins as severely as we ought to? Do we consider them to be a “threatening peril” as our Collect of the Day prays? Why is sin so dangerous to us? James 1:13-15; Matthew 18:7-9. What phrase does Isaiah use in 64:7 to describe the self-destructive consequences of our own sinful actions?
  4. In verse 5, the question is raised—seemingly without much hope—of whether we can be saved, since we have been in our sins for such a long time. Mercifully, how does God answer when we turn away from sin and seek forgiveness from Him? Psalm 103:3; 130:4. How does God transform our fear into the solid hope of salvation in the cross of Jesus Christ? In heaven, what is the refrain of praise that reflects that solid hope of salvation in Jesus? Revelation 7:10
  5. At the end of the passage, Isaiah pleads with God to “forget” or “remember not” something. What is it he asks God to forget? Does God forget them? Psalm 25:7; 79:8; Jeremiah 31:34.
  6. In the last part of verse 9, he asks God to remember something. What do we ask God to remember? Psalm 74:2; 25:6. How can we be confident that God will remember, even when we go through periods of apparent silence or the hiddenness of God’s face? Luke 1:72; 23:42.

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