There are these series of “songs” in the book of Isaiah often called the servant songs. The most famous is the one most associated with the passion in Isaiah 52 and 53. “Behold, my servant…shall be high and lifted up…he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…” Our Old Testament Lesson for this week (Isaiah 42) is another one of the servant songs. And it contains one of the most fascinating descriptions in the Bible of the way that God will operate with men.
The first thing it does is make sure that we understand who and what we are dealing with. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” There are three unique things here that we should absorb. The first is that the mystery of our election is tied up in the mystery of the Trinity. The son is the only-begotten of the Father. This is the one in whom the soul of the Lord delights – soul here meaning being or essence. The delight of the Lord being with his people has always been tied up with his people being connected to the only-begotten son. And from where does this delight come? The choosing. This one is my chosen. And this chosen has chosen his own. As John says at the start of his gospel, “given the right to become Children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:13 ESV),” And for what have they been chosen? They are servants of the most high. Now it is the paradoxical nature of this God that he raises up his servants. And the one who is the servant of all now sits at the right hand of God. The church is the servant of Christ, his chosen, and the delight of his eye in an analogous way to the son and the Father.
How is this made known? “I will put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Spirit was placed upon Jesus in his baptism. There is a long-standing fight between the Western and the Eastern churches over the Nicene Creed. The Eastern one confess that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. The Wester adds: and the Son. The Spirit placed upon Jesus in His baptism then proceeds from the Son to us in our baptism. He took our baptism, so that we might receive his. Just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit for his service, we have been anointed by the Spirit for our service. And what is this service? To make known to the nations what the justice of the Lord is.
And all of that brings us to the toughest verses. How is this done? Can we bring this justice to the nations by brute force? What about by the wisdom of the world? “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” All of the straightforward ways of power and authority of the world are to be shunned. The gospel proceeds by “left-handed” ways. It is not that the gospel denies truth and justice. No, “he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged.” This is the same God who “created the heavens and stretched them out.” His law stands. But that rule is to be accepted and longed for. “The coastlands wait for his law.” Because Christ will not have the might of the law crush the weak. Christ has chosen us and his election is sure. That “left-handed” way is by faith. The Servant has chosen us and the will of God will not be confounded. Our faith is not in vain. The One who made all things, will make them all new in due time. “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
God operates with us by telling us exactly what he has done. By giving us His servant “as a covenant for the people.” And all those who have faith in this covenant are the chosen, those in whom the soul of God delights.
This is my attempt at a Reformation Day sermon that tries to bring that 500 year old crisis into our day. The core insight of the Reformation is understanding that the Word of God comes to us as a Word of Law and a Word of Gospel. (Gospel has become a churchy word. It simply means good news, but even that feels like a euphemism. I would simply use promise. The Gospel is the promise of God revealed in Jesus Christ.) And I think it might take a bit, but the animating phrase, the phrase that makes it fall into place for me is “do the work.” That’s the modern “woke” phrase and it is so close to the Reformation era phrase “do what you can” or what Luther started with in the 95 theses, “do penance.” The Law demands from us. The law of God is good and wise, human laws less so, but the fact of the Word of the Law is that it always condemns. And our primary strategy is to try and minimize the law. Unleash our internal lawyers to make affirmative cases. Yes, we did it, but it doesn’t matter, because…
The work is never done, except in the cross. That is the gospel. This sermon attempts to make us feel the weight of the law, and to open that bottle of 200 proof grace that Luther stumbled accross.
We are ask “Why?” occasionally. The honest answer from the bible is that God just doesn’t answer “why” that often, at least not in words. He does provide an answer in the cross. But the Old Testament text for the Day from the prophet Habakkuk is one of the places where God stoops to give an answer to “Why?” This sermon is a proclamation of both the question and God’s answer. It might not satisfy all, but I find it a deep well.
The Text is the Good Samaritan. When you are preaching on such a story you really have to be content with telling the old old story. And as a Lutheran that Old Old story is captured in this incredibly compact story of law and gospel. The law story is clear and is the direct text. You have a lawyer, arguing points of the law, and a command to go and do likewise. The gospel? The gospel is the subtext of the story. Because you eventually realize that the text is impossible. Something or someone must deliver us from this narrative that we have been living. That someone is Jesus the Good Samaritan.
What exactly is Reformation Day? It has been a lot of things. This sermon mentions a couple of them. But almost of of the alternates are corruptions of what it really was. Which is a recovery of the Apostle Paul. Which is a new birth of freedom in hearing the law and the gospel. It is not just the gospel, although that is the happy best part. It is also the law. The Reformation recovered that 200 proof cask of grace that Paul preached. Christ died for sinners and God’s righteousness is given to you as a gift. You have been made a member of God’s house by God’s choice. And that free gift also frees us to see the law for what it is. It is not a method of saving ourselves. But it is also no longer our writ of condemnation. Yes, we are sinners. But the righteousness of God does not come by the law, but by grace through faith. So we can accept the law as God’s good gift to us for our good. Reformation Day is about the law and the gospel, and how they Reform our hard hearts into hearts of flesh.
The image from the Text is a plumb line, something that checks if you built straight. The Northern Kingdom, specifically the house of Jeroboam had not, and their time was short. Amos was sent by Yahweh to tell them. But in Amaziah, the Northern Priest, and Amos’ MMA style confrontation we get some vital insight into our calls. This sermon digs into putting the plumb line on our souls.
This was our reformation celebration. I love preaching on what is the alternate Gospel Text for the day. It offers for me an image of both the law and the gospel in John the Baptist and Jesus.
We all have compressed images of truth. The sermon looks at some of our I think. Some compressed images linger after we’ve forgotten what they mean. Others are “eternal gospels”. They speak to all times and places. The reformation has an image. Luther with a hammer nailing his theses to the door. The question that the day brings to us is if this is an eternal image, or a temporal one.
I happen to think Luther is a dramatic icon of the gospel, akin to the icon Jesus paints in the text for himself. I think Luther is an eternal truth. But the question is really to you. Do you still get the truth of the image. Are you willing to dance? Or has it become a dead image.
There is always a mystical element in Christianity, “My sheep hear my voice.” Not that there isn’t a lost history of proof behind that voice, a history capture in the Scriptures. Abraham in that sense ends up being THE man of faith because he heard the voice without any real history. But we are all a bit like Father Abraham. The shepherd calls, and we hear the voice and follow to a good land.
Jesus parable here in John is help for Christians. There are always three types of voices. And Jesus tells us how to tell the difference. That is what this sermon is about. How do we sore out the thieves, the gatekeepers and the shepherd? It is surprisingly simple, and the highest art in the faith, listening for law and gospel.
The text, a quick read, is the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And these are such clear and tender pictures of the grace of the gospel, a preacher might be doing injustice to them by preaching anything but their simplicity. That is my request for a bit of grace at the start. Because that simplicity is there, but I push a little bit beyond that simplicity here. And the reason is that our context has changed. And I think that we as Christians need to change the context in our heads when we hear these parables. We need to be a little wiser in regards to law and gospel and ears to hear. So jumping off of a Luther himself sermon, this sermon looks at just who are the lost sheep, as well as the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, and the sinners and tax collectors, both those who come to hear Jesus and those who are riotously secure in houses on the sand.
There is always a bit of a frisson when I have a text with Satan in it. Giving Satan a voice from the pulpit always feels like crossing a boundary. There is a bit of that in here. But the main contemplative point is how Law and Gospel are connected with an “and”. In this world you don’t get one without the other, although that is always the temptation. Satan’s temptations are to break the relationships that bind and order our existence. Sometimes that temptation is straight up to our sinful nature. Sometimes that testing is to the power of the ring. But however they express themselves, they are always a rebellion against both the grace and the order of God. He has a way that He desires us to walk. When we tell the Spirit, sorry, I don’t like that desert or those 40 days, we’ve gone off the path. This sermon meditates on how Jesus walked it for us (hence the closing hymn), and bids us to follow.