"Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed, Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law."
Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk in it, "I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon, And those who dwell in darkness from the prison."
Sermon for The Sunday after New Years 1/08/23
Softly, Tenderly, and Irresistibly
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me. See, on the portals He's waiting and watching, Watching for you and for me. I remember hearing that song on my dad's old country records. I always thought it was beautiful and sentimental. I also thought it was just a Country song until I found it in hymnals of other church bodies – even a Lutheran Hymn-book published for the ALC in the 1950's. I only bring it up because our text put me in mind of it, as I considered our theme for this day. Based on the words of Isaiah, our theme is Softly, Tenderly, and Irresistibly.
The servant passage is familiar to most Christians. This is the one where it says that He will not break a bruised wick or extinguish a dimly burning wick. Jesus will go forth and be utterly inoffensive, He will not measure faith - either you believe or you do not. He will be all encouragement. It seems odd, doesn't it?, that the One being described in this way is the source of the greatest and often most-violent confrontations in the world. He isn't actually the Source, but His being and His work and His message serve as the focal point and inspiration for persecutions and condemnations, and actual violence. Nevertheless, Our Lord does all the things prophesied about Him.
Jesus was not often a rabble-rouser. He taught. He did His work quietly, and for the most part, He did it the same way then that He does it now, by the power of the Word. Jesus did not go out to stir up trouble or get people all churned up. He preached and He taught - and most of the time He spoke about love. Of course, there were those few occasions - such as when Jesus ‘cleansed' the temple. He seemed to have gotten a little more aggressive there. But He didn't challenge anyone's faith there or attack the weak in faith. He simply addressed the Law of God to those who were quite comfortable with breaking it and abusing the house of God. I would doubt anyone who actually believed in God was offended or hurt by what Jesus did that day.
This prophecy speaks about how the One sent will bring forth justice. Isaiah says that He will faithfully bring forth justice. I suspect that some who read this prophecy were expecting some great form of legal reform. Like us, the ancients had to deal with the utter duplicity of those in power. People tend to take personal advantage of whatever authority they may possess, for however long they may possess it. Long before modern politics, there was the parable of the unjust steward, who took advantage of his position to feather his own nest - and that parable would not have made sense to anyone if that sort of behavior was unknown or uncommon. So, some could well have imagined that what Jesus was supposed to bring was a fair judicial system.
But what Isaiah was prophesying was the Gospel. The justice that He brought was the completed justice of the cross. If your sins or mine were to be paid for by us, it would require an eternity of torment - hell. We would never quite finish paying for our rebellion against our Creator, nor our stubborn sinfulness in the face of the goodness of God toward us. God gives us a sunrise, and we complain abut having to face another day. God feeds miraculously, and the children of Israel grumbled about that miserable manna. We have sixty years of tremendous good health, and when we get sick we act as though we receive nothing from the hand of God but trouble - and that we cannot confidently look to God for blessings or good.
No, if our sins were to find complete justice, we would need something much more than we are capable of doing, of suffering or paying. That is where Jesus came in. He is the One of infinite worth, who took up our sins, although innocent Himself, and paid the penalty to the very last drop of His blood. He paid our debt, not His own, and He paid it with the very life of the Son of God Himself. By comparison, we are worth nothing, for without Him we would not even exist. He is what gives substance and meaning to everything, and He gave Himself for us. Suddenly, we are not worthless. Because of Him we are counted in the scales of God's values as precious, like His only Son, because His only-begotten Son, who has been with Him from eternity, counted us as precious and worth dying for!
Now we are cleansed, forgiven! We are counted righteous with His righteousness just as He was counted guilty with our sin. He made Him to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him! Talk about establishing justice! He has accounted for every sin and poured out upon all mankind the verdict of ‘innocent, beloved of God, and redeemed'! Now, only those who reject His payment, who refuse His gift, or who demand to be held to account for their own native worth and righteousness fail to receive and enjoy the salvation He has won. Justice has been served, and now grace is poured out. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved!
He did not allow anything to stand in His way as He established justice – and He did it without crying out or fighting with earthly weapons. He did it softly, tenderly and irresistibly. He walked quietly to the cross. They could hardly get Him to speak. He did not struggle, but ordered those who wanted to fight for Him to stand down. He healed the man whose ear had been cut off. He bore their abuse and mocking, and pleaded with His heavenly Father for their forgiveness because, as He put it, they had no idea what they were really doing. And, although the coming crucifixion made Him sorrowful to the point of death, and His sweat came as great drops of blood, nevertheless, He went forward and allowed all those horrible things to happen, just as He knew they would, so that we might be declared just! Talk about establishing justice! He defeated sin and evil without firing a shot, but by humbling Himself and enduring all that they had to dish out, not helplessly, but with purpose.
In the last verse of our text, Isaiah speaks about the One prophesied opening blind eyes. Our Lord does that through the Gospel. It is by the preaching of the Word and the declaration of forgiveness and by the announcing of the promises of God that faith is created and sustained. We are naturally unable to believe, or even to really comprehend the treasures of the Gospel. The Bible teaches it clearly, in verses such as 1 Corinthians 2:13-14, "which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." We also confess this truth in our Catechism, "I believe that I cannot, by my own wisdom or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him."
So Jesus opens the eyes of the blind. He makes us to see the truth and trust in Him. He doesn't do it by coercion, but softly, tenderly and irresistibly, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Word. We can't argue someone into faith, any more than we can argue someone into joining our congregation. All we can do is tell them the truth, speak our confession of Christ, and invite them to come, and see, and know for themselves. It isn't a popular approach. We like to have something that gives us control over the process and makes results more predictable. But Jesus opens the eyes of the blind, not us. The Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He chooses, by means of the gospel preached. So programs and presentations don't work, except to the extent that they get us speaking the Word of God.
Isaiah says that God would make His Servant a light to the nations. Jesus is every bit of that. He is a light in that He gives enlightenment. He shows us the true shape of reality, that is to say, the will of God. The Gospel exposes as a lie the idea that God is to be feared with terror. The God of Islam provokes terror, but our God forgives. Our God protects. Our God feeds and guides His people, and takes care of the rest of the world as well. And He wants to be known as the God of all mercy and goodness and love. He want us – and everyone else – to know that we can depend on Him, and then to actually trust in Him. His will toward the entire race of mankind is that they would know the truth, believe in Him, and trust His good and gracious will toward them, and walk before Him in love and humility and fellowship with Him and with one another. God would have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The evil men of Islam, of Buddhism, of Hinduism – or of open atheism and unbelief in America – the men who riot and burn and kill on the evening news – are frightening only in that they portend difficult times for those who live among them. Their violence might spread, and might hamper our peace and enjoyment of life. But as men, I do not hate them, I feel badly for them in their ignorance, and I wish for them the same thing I wish for the unbelieving around us, that they may come to know the truth and find peace in the will and the love and the grace of God. And what is His will?
The reason that this prophecy says that He will be a light to the nations is that this ‘light' is not restricted to the Chosen People of the Old Testament. God has always planned on rescuing men from every nation, who will believe. Israel was chosen, but turned its back on God. But God had already decided long ago to bring His good will and saving grace to every man and woman who will listen and believe and trust in Him. And He has done it! The Church exists in every land. There are believers of every race and every nationality and every language under the sun. And they are all members of the one Church, the same Church, the Body of Christ, and His Bride.
When we come to faith, by the power of the Spirit, we have been brought out of the prison of sin and death, mentioned by Isaiah in this text. The prison is the prison of death and hell, the dungeon of false doctrines and false gods, the darkness of superstition, ignorance and sin. The fear of dying and what awaits us beyond the grave is darkness and a dungeon for the mind and for the soul. They become a prison of reality when people die in unbelief, but even here and now they are a miserable captivity for souls lost in uncertainty, ignorance and the awful anticipation of what lies beyond.
But now, we have been brought out from the prison-house and set free from the dungeons of sin and death. Not only is there peace of mind now, but death itself is not the end. We have been made the beneficiaries of justice, set free from our prisons of sin, and even from the prison of the grave. We don't have to do it all or despair. He will raise us to everlasting life in the day of resurrection, and we shall live in the light of the covenant which is Jesus Christ, into which we have been drawn softly, tenderly and irresistibly.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
Sunday, January 08, 2023
Softly, Tenderly, and Irresistibly