Monday, February 05, 2018

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 & Luke 8:4-15, Sexagesima "Sixty" (1 Yr. Lectionary), "The Powerful, Watering Word"

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Today the prophet Isaiah gives us a beautiful and encouraging Scripture, written to give us hope. Isaiah lived 7 centuries before Christ, but probably more than any other single prophet, he described Jesus in beautiful detail, showing marvelously God’s inspiration of His Word. Today Isaiah teaches us about God’s powerful and effective Word.
I’ve always been amazed and fascinated by the landscape of Maui and the Hawaiian islands in general. In parts of Maui or the Big Island, you can see “fresh lava flows” from as recent as a few days to a few hundred years old. Sharp, hard, black, inhospitable lava can cover the landscape for miles around, like we see near La Perouse Bay on Maui. But amazingly, under the right conditions, you can see green plant life and even whole forests burst out onto those rocky landscapes that seemed utterly unwelcome to life, and where no soil is to be seen. What makes this possible? Water! As a Hawaiian proverb says: “Ola i ka wai a ka ‘ōpua”—“There is life in the water from the clouds.” Water allows rugged plants to take root, and together they turn the lava into fertile soil.
Not only can you see an amazing contrast from barren rock to new thriving growth, but also from the dry leeward side of the island to the wet windward side, you can see the huge difference it makes to have water or not. Where there is water, everything flourishes and grows with a heavy tropical variety of green—where there is no water, or very little water, its dusty, brown, dry, and dead, or the plants are sparse and stunted in their growth. Water is life, and the absence of water is death, as we can see all around us.
The prophet Isaiah uses that truth from nature to speak about how God’s Word works. God’s Word is like the water that comes down from heaven, rain or snow, and wherever that water falls to the earth, it causes plants to grow and gives food to all living things. So it is with God’s Word. Where God’s Word rains down, things grow and come to life! It produces life in our barren and rocky hearts, where there could be no growth and no green, without the watering of God’s Word. God’s Word is the necessary condition to transform stony hearts into living soil, to turn the brown and dry ground into rich, fertile soil, where God’s Word can do its work, and make us to grow. Spiritually, where the Word of God is, there is life and growth, and where it is absence, there is thirst and death. As life cannot exist without water, neither can our spirit live without the Word of God.
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, God says, it shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. God has a goal, a purpose, a plan for what He wants to accomplish, and His Word is the effective means that accomplishes it. This is such an important Bible verse because it tells us that God’s Word is a Living, powerful Word. God’s Word is not like our human words, which so often echo, fall flat, or never achieve the things we say. Human words can be empty, powerless, and cheap, especially when we do not do the things we say, or are powerless to effect the things we command. But not so with God’s Word! His Word is always going to achieve the purpose for which God sent it. God’s Word doesn’t return to Him empty. His Word is not a gamble, but a sure thing. He does as He says. His Word is powerful to do the things that He promises and commands. So we “do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). God’s Word is that lamp, and the Morning Star is Jesus. His Word lightens our darkness.
So what are God’s plans or purposes for His Word? Just a few verses earlier, in the reading, Isaiah calls: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7). God’s plan or purpose is that we poor sinners would hear His Word and turn back to Him. That the dry and thirsty ground would drink water and receive life and growth. God’s Word has real power and real effects (Preus, 173). God surveys the dry, lifeless soil, or the hard stony ground of human hearts, and desires for there to be life. He wants green, growing plants to cover that, and for the watering of His Word to make rich, fertile soil.
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near—now is the right time to call on God—not later. When God’s Living Word reaches our ears, it’s time to listen, time to respond! His voice will not call forever, the rain of His Word will not stay forever, but like passing rainstorms, it may move on to another place. Martin Luther famously predicted this of his own German people, 500 years ago. He said if they wouldn’t listen to it, and despised God’s Word, it would move on like a rain shower to somewhere else, and that new life would flourish where people received God’s Word. And that’s what happened—many Germans did not hold onto the Word, and they lost it—but meanwhile God’s Word has multiplied, took root, spread new life and growth in many other places. And all through history this is also true. God’s Word is powerful to turn the wicked from their sinful way, to break the power of hatred, selfishness, and evil, so that we are turned to the righteous path.
God’s Word is powerful to turn us from unrighteous thoughts—all the unclean and hurtful things fill our heads—and to return us to the Lord. God has compassion on sinners, and He will abundantly pardon. Savor those incredible Gospel words: God will abundantly pardon. My life is filled with many self-centered ideas and ways—unrighteous thoughts, and I need His Word to wash over me, to refresh me, to cleanse my thoughts and my heart, and to rejuvenate me with new life and abundant forgiveness. Forgiveness rich and deep enough to cleanse away all my sins, and to make me walk with Him in newness of life. And this forgiving Word is Christ Jesus, crucified on the cross for us. His rich and abundant life poured out completely to quench all the evil flames of our sin, and to wash the filth and stain away, to refresh and make us new. Clean, pure, washed over by His crystal pure waters.
We know that God sends His Word to us with a purpose. A Law purpose—to humble us for the guilt of our sins and to turn us to Him—and a Gospel purpose—that turning to Him we would be saved and restored. God knows how and where we each need to grow, both individually and as a congregation, a community. So let us pray to God that His Word would rain down from heaven and cause us to grow in all the ways that we need it—to grow in depth of faith, in patience, in rootedness (being established on Him and His Word), to grow in fruitfulness, and Lord-willing, to grow in numbers of disciples.
Today in the parable of the Sower, Jesus teaches about the Word of God as the seed, that sometimes lands on ready soil, sometimes falls on the hard path, sometimes thorny ground, sometimes stony ground. Plants on stony soil don’t have much root. They can’t get deeply established to have enough water to drink, and so they wither and die in the heat. God’s Word is both a deep rooted foundation for us, if we build solidly on it; and also the deep refreshing drink of water that satisfies our thirsty souls (or could we say: ‘soils’?!). Plants in thorny soil, Jesus explains, get choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this world, and they never grow to maturity to bear fruit. Our lives can be complicated with worries, material things, and all kinds of attractions—and these can choke out the Word of God. If we aren’t receiving that Word of God, we “die on the vine”—never growing to maturity or bearing the fruit that God intended for us.
In Isaiah today, v. 13, it describes what happens when God’s Word has been watering: “instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” When God’s Word comes, it reverses the curse. Remember the curse of thorns and thistles that God put on Adam? After he sinned, farming and growing would become a tiresome and difficult challenge. But God’s Word reversed that curse, changing cursed and thorny plants to pleasant growth. Not in our backyard gardens, but in the spiritual garden of our hearts—where God’s Word does its work. Is our heart wrapped with thorns and cares—preoccupied with the troubles of life and pinched and poked by so many things that we don’t have life and room to breathe? Again, only God’s Word is powerful to blaze away the dead brush and thorns, and to give us new life and freedom. All through the book of Isaiah, thorns are a picture of the judgment of God against those who reject His Word and practice injustice. But here, for those who receive His Word, that curse is reversed and creation returns to the fruitfulness and blessing God intends.
In Jesus’ parable of the sower, and God’s Word as the seed, there are two more possible outcomes, beside the stony and thorny soil. One is that the devil snatches away the so it never really even gets into people’s hearts—the devil robs them of really listening and the Word taking root. This happens easily enough today with the countless distractions in life from hearing God’s Word. But the last and best outcome is when the seed lands on ready soil, grows, and bears much fruit. This is the purpose and outcome for which God sends out His powerful Word. The Word of Jesus, whether pictured as the water that gives life to the dry desert, and causes our hearts and spirit to flourish, or pictured as the seed that grows vigorously in the soil and bears much fruit—that word of Jesus is powerful and effective to work our salvation. God wrote this message of salvation into existence. His Word is not just knowledge to tickle your ears, but it is life-giving, and life-changing, rejuvenating. God’s Word is not returning empty—not today, not yesterday, or tomorrow. It endures forever, making an everlasting name for the Lord—For He is mighty, a merciful, and compassionate God. All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Isaiah 55:10-13. What is Isaiah comparing the rain and snow to? What happens on the earth when the rain falls? How do we see these effects on Maui?
2.      Where does God’s Word “rain down” and have its effect? Where does God’s Word grow? See Luke 8:4-15.
3.      Read Ezekiel 36:26. What are our hearts like before God’s Word comes in and does it’s work? What are our hearts like after God’s Word works?
4.      What are God’s plans and purposes for His Word (i.e., what does He want His Word to do?). Read Isaiah 55:11, and also vs. 6-7.
5.      Why is it well worth us paying attention to God’s Word? 2 Peter 1:19.
6.      Why does God want life and growth in the hearts of us people? How does He produce that life and growth?
7.      Isaiah 55:6 says “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near”. Now is the time of salvation, God’s Word also tells us. 2 Corinthians 6:2. Why is there this urgency about calling on God?
8.      How generous is God’s forgiveness and pardon? Isaiah 55:7. What does this mean for all of our sins? Why is God so generous? Titus 3:5-6

9.      Consider your own life. Where are the areas that you need to grow? What “water” do you need to experience that growth? Does it cost you anything? Isaiah 55:1. Where can you get it? 

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