Sermon on Isaiah 49:7-13, for Maundy Thursday 2021, "He Prepares a Table"

 Sermon on Isaiah 49:7-13 for Maundy Thursday, from Rev. Reed Lessing, "Singing with the Exiles" series. 

“They shall not hunger or thirst.” Isaiah 49:9.

 

When was the last time you gave this commentary on your life? “Deader than a door-nail; a lost cause; time to throw in the towel; Sayonara baby; the fat lady has sung ...or the mighty Casey has struck out!”

Israel gave this very commentary on her own life during the dark days of the Babylonian exile. Today Isaiah speaks to this people of a lost cause. You see, Isaiah knew that the days were coming when Israel would have no temple, no Jerusalem, no Davidic king, no annual pilgrim feasts, no commercial or political significance, and no hope! Mighty Casey will strike out! Or, to use Israel's favorite – “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Their preeminence and years of glory were but a mournful, distant memory.

Isaiah 49:9–12 continues the message of redemption with the Servant’s release of prisoners. He will lead them back from all directions. While the specific word “shepherd” is not used, the words “graze,” “pasture,” “lead,” and “guide” make it clear that the Servant is shepherding His people. He leads his flock to find food on barren heights and in the hottest of weather he gives his sheep unlimited water. Their path is straight, compared with the normally hilly country where sheep are used to grazing. This Servant even can tend a huge number of sheep drawn from great distances.

And so he promises, “They shall not hunger or thirst.” And all this implies that you and I are nothing more than sheep. Now domestic sheep are not intimidating creatures. No future mascots of any sports teams, like the Los Angeles Lambs or the San Antonio Sheep! Unless you have horns and qualify to be our school mascot, the Emmanuel Lutheran Rams, ordinary sheep are just too docile and helpless to inspire any fear.

Far from intimidating, truth be told, sheep are susceptible to real trouble. Untended, they will overgraze the same hills until those hills turn to desert wastes, polluted with disease. Sheep will blindly follow another sheep in mass, right off a cliff to their death, like lemmings. We aren’t like that ... are we? We can get sucked right into the peer pressure of culture and blindly follow the latest fads, to our own harm. Sheep are dirty. Their wool is like a magnet. It attracts mud, manure, maggots. It becomes caked with dirt, decay, disease. Sheep absorb every particle of dirt around them. We aren’t like that ... are we? Sheep are defenseless. They turn over on their back to rest, but then can’t get up. Predators know that a cast sheep is a sitting duck!  But we aren’t like that … are we? It’s not that sheep don’t have some lovable qualities. They can be cute, playful and cuddly. They recognize the voice and faces of familiar humans. But it’s still not a comparison we really like to make to ourselves, is it?

Israel had been just like that ...defenseless, stuck, waiting for the kill…and so it was Sayonara baby. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar did it, aided by Nebuzaradan his chief butcher. The towel was thrown in 587 B.C. all because they had been like ... sheep! They were defeated and carted off to exile.

They were dumb. Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Dirty: Isaiah 64:6, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” And defenseless:  Isaiah1:6, “From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores.” We’re not like that are we?

Hear the word of Yahweh, Isaiah 53:6, “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”  And the result? “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remember Zion.” You and I are living testimonies of lost causes, of being deader than a doornail; exiled, we are so far from the Father’s will and ways; so far from bearing each other’s pain and burdens; so far from spouses, children, sisters, brothers. So far, far away from home. We haven’t fared much better than our ancestors.

What’s a Shepherd to do? He only has one option, to become a Lamb. No ordinary Lamb: “A virgin will conceive and bear a Son and you will call his name Immanuel! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  No ordinary Lamb, “He was led like a Lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday there were no green pastures.  Rather spit and blood matted his cheeks. There were no quiet waters, in fact, no water at all.  His lips are cracked and swollen, his throat, parched from the hot Palestinian sun. He’s passing through the valley of the shadow of death as pain twangs her melody. There's no rod or staff for comfort. The cup overflows all right, he drinks from the cup of God Almighty’s wrath.

            Reflecting on this great love, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

And as sheep, we have this promise, “They shall not hunger or thirst.” As our Shepherd, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world, He spreads our table before us, saying, “take eat, this is my body. Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of your sins.” The Shepherd is truly present with his body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine. He gives us to eat and to drink, to satisfy our soul’s deepest hunger and thirst.

            This table is a feast of forgiveness, mercy, and salvation.  Remember His promise? Because of these gifts in the Holy Supper, we will not hunger or thirst again! We no longer need suffer the hunger pangs of hopelessness, lost causes, guilt, shame, or despair, because we have forgiveness, cleansing, hope, and new life in Jesus!

When I am lost and exiled, my Shepherd Jesus leaves the ninety-nine sheep and runs after me. When I am confused by the voices of demons and devils, he calls me by name and I know that voice. When I am dirty and full of filth, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is my Shepherd who gathers me in His arms until I am better, holds me until I can live with the hurt, and carries me close to His heart forever so that He may lead me home.

 

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