Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon on Isaiah 51:4-6, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "God's Justice"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Do you see or experience a deep, human longing for peace, and for justice? Whether it’s from the common prayers of 5th graders for world peace, to the hopes and aspirations of adults and even our national leaders, there certainly seems to be a longing for things to be better, to be different. We praise peace and justice, with our words at least. Whether we live that out or not, is another story.
But even if you agree that most Americans, long for certain ideals of peace or justice—we cannot escape the brutal reality that not everyone shares this longing. We’re daily confronted with the ugly and horrendous violence of mankind. Acts of terror on innocent people, bombings, shootings, and all kinds of violence. Not just internationally, either, but in our own nation and in our communities as well. Even though we find it incredibly hard to believe, we face the painful reality that many human beings have their hearts set on bloodshed and violence. And it’s easy enough to blame wicked men as the only obstacle to obtaining true peace and justice.
 But even when left to our own devices, even without the outside influence of terrorists or criminals, we cannot create a man-made peace or utopia. When John Lennon wrote his famous song Imagine, he thought that getting rid of religion would be part of the solution for a man-made peace. But in reality, the communist, political regimes of the 20th century that explicitly rejected religion, and were atheistic, or denied God, have been by far the bloodiest regimes in history. Getting rid of religion proved to be a false hope for solving the world’s problems. Peace and justice seem elusive, out of reach, despite all man’s efforts.
The reading from Isaiah points us in a different direction, and calls us to listen to God’s plan. It begins: “Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.” If the justice of worldly men has disappointed and failed us, then what about God’s justice? How does it enlighten the peoples—change our darkness into light? First He says He will send out a law, and in parallel, His justice. These are two crucial words, that we must understand from the Old Testament. The word “law” here is torah. Torah means much more than just a commandment, or the civil laws of a nation. Torah in the Bible, means God’s command, His instruction, His teaching. In other words, it’s a broad word, that includes God’s Word of Law, and Gospel. It means the whole of God’s teaching. So God is going to send His Word, His teaching out to the world.
The second big word is justice, and this is a justice that is unknown to man. God’s justice stands apart from worldly definitions of justice, even if they sometimes agree in punishing evildoers, and rewarding good. God’s justice is perfect and holy, and not bound by any earthly standard—but quite the opposite, our justice, if it is to mean anything, must mirror His justice. God’s justice is far reaching, in that it surveys not only our outward actions, but also our inward thoughts, desires, as well as our words and deeds. Human justice can be escaped or avoided. Human justice is far too often corrupted or not even delivered. But God’s justice is unavoidable and it is perfect.
But far more important than these similarities and differences, is another way in which God’s justice is unknown to man. While the judgment of God’s law is unerring and leaves us all condemned, God’s justice is further realized through His mercy. Let me explain. In Isaiah chapter 42, God introduces His plan to bring justice to the nations—and says that He is going to send His own chosen servant to bring it. He describes the justice that His Servant will bring, in this way: Isaiah 42:1–4,  
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

Here, God is prophetically describing Jesus. Jesus would be God’s agent, or God’s chosen servant to bring justice to the nations. But it wasn’t a strong-arm justice or a cold and unforgiving sentencing to the punishments we deserved under the law. Rather it is a justice that is tempered by mercy.
            The justice of Jesus who didn’t cry foul or demand His rights, when He was mocked, insulted, and mistreated through the streets of Jerusalem. The justice of Jesus didn’t forsake the cross that He unjustly bore. And the justice of Jesus didn’t “break the bruised reed” or “quench the dimly burning wick.” In other words, He did not extinguish the life or hope of those who were crushed or weighed down in soul or spirit, under the judgments of God’s law. But rather, Jesus shows tenderness and mercy to the weak, the burdened, those bearing the spiritual chains of sin, or dwelling in darkness. By receiving all the ugliness and injustice of mankind into Himself, He delivers back to us mercy instead. By receiving the judgment of the law, or the justice of God, that we rightly deserved, He delivers us God’s justice—the acquittal that Jesus deserved. He extends to us the innocence that belongs to Jesus.
            God’s justice is truly unknown to the world, because it is so astonishing and unlike our own. This is why His light shines brightly for the nations. This is why the coastlands hope for Him, and wait for His arm. The true longing for peace and justice that cannot be filled by our earthly attempts at justice, is only truly filled by the justice of God, revealed by Jesus, God’s chosen servant. His verdicts alone are just, right and true. God alone can rightly and justly condemn the evildoer. God alone can rightly and justly justify the sinner. Declare the sinner righteous. If the world even wants to glimpse what God’s peace and justice will be like, they can only find it in Jesus. In the Torah, or teaching that God sends out to the people. This is a light, a beacon, and our only true hope.
And to confirm that, to show that real hope is found only in the One True God, and His salvation, verse 6 ends our reading: “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.” God invites us to survey creation. Look all around—at the universe above, and the earth beneath—and even at all living things on earth. These things may appear permanent and lasting. But they are not. Even the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, an accepted scientific law, affirms this Biblical truth—that everything in the universe is proceeding to disorder and decay. The universe as it exists, can’t last. Everything is wearing down and wearing out to its final end. The earth is wearing out like old clothes, and won’t sustain life forever. And if the earth and the universe seem too long lasting for us to gain that perspective, than we only need look at the shortness of our own lives.
What does all of this tell us? It tells us not to put our hope in things that are temporary, that are mortal, that are not permanent, but must come to an end. Where then must we place our hope? God says, “My salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.” By nature we are linked to the old, dying creation. By nature we will go the way of all flesh, to the grave. But by God’s Spirit and by His chosen servant Jesus, we are linked to an eternal salvation. Jesus rescues us from our frailty and sin, and gives us an eternal salvation. He wraps us in His everlasting righteousness that will never be dismayed.
Hopes in this world, and in the promises of manmade peace or justice will surely be dismayed. Hopes in any religion or righteousness that we try to manufacture on our own, will surely be dismayed. Nothing can last, nothing is eternal, but God’s salvation and His Word. This is lasting hope and glory that will not disappoint us. This is lasting hope and glory that lifts us up to God. So do not be dismayed by the darkness of this world—lift up your eyes to the One who brings justice. Lift up your eyes to the servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      God says in Isaiah 51:4 that He will “set [His] justice for a light to the peoples.” Who is God saying will be a “light for the nations” in Isaiah 42:1, 6? (clue: John 8:12). What is this “light for the nations” going to bring? Isaiah 49:6
2.      Describe the way in which the Lord’s chosen servant will bring justice for the peoples: Isaiah 42:1-4; cf. 1:16-17. What is the difference between God’s justice and evil and oppression? Isaiah 59:8-21. How does God bring justice to the evildoer and forgiveness to the repentant?
3.      Reread Isaiah 51:4-6. List all the phrases that begin with “my”, starting with “my people.” To whom do they all belong? Who is going to show and exercise true justice and righteousness by His coming?
4.      How does the justice of God contrast to the justice of the world? Why are our nations in such tumult and war, and even in times of peace, there is so much domestic violence and bloodshed? How does this contrast between God’s justice and the justice of the nations, present a reason for the nations to hope in Him?
5.      Isaiah 51:6 invites us to survey the universe and all creation. What are we to see and realize is happening to them? Psalm 102:25-27; Romans 8:20-25. Why is earth subject to this decay? Which scientific law affirms this Biblical truth about the decay of the universe?
6.      Since both we and the universe itself, face our own “mortality”, where should we turn our hope, and why? Isaiah 51:6b; 45:17; 40:6-8. Hebrews 13:8.
So be it Lord! Thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away; Thy kingdom stands and grows forever, till all Thy creatures own Thy sway. LSB 886:5, “The Day Thou Gavest”

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