Sunday, July 16, 2017

Isaiah 55:10-13 - Farewell Sermon At St. Peter's and St. John's

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 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.” Isaiah 55:10-11
It was like unexpectedly seeing an old friend when I discovered this would be our Old Testament text for my last Sunday here.  It is one of my most favorite OT passages of all, and extremely appropriate for today. 
I first remember noticing this passage in the summer of 1996.  As I told you this story a few years ago, I was on the Summer Youth Ministry Team for my college.  Mostly that meant helping out with the VBS for a congregation and working with their youth group.  Our team each chose one of our professors who promised to pray for us throughout the summer.  I will never forget the day when a letter came from my partner, Dr. Brighton.  He specifically quoted this text from Isaiah to encourage me.  But that made me a bit confused.  I remember questioning God, “Why this verse now, Lord?  I mean, I feel like my ministry work is going great.  I am seeing the kids learn as I teach.  Your Word is having success.  I mean, maybe if I was discouraged I could understand why You had Dr. Brighton quote this passage.  But I am actually getting great joy from my work.” 
          In less than half an hour, I had an answer.  During our Team meeting, one of my friends poured out her heart saying she felt like a failure.  She was trying to reach the kids with God’s Word, but they just did not seem to be getting it.  Then I realized how foolish and self-centered I was to think that God had sent His Isaiah 55 promise just for my sake.  No, it was for my friend.  At that moment He had given it to me to give away.  He sent Isaiah 55 out so He could promise His daughter that His Word she was speaking would get done what He wanted it to do.  Even if she could not see it happen.
          The second milepost where I came across this passage was two years later in the Fall of 1998.  I was in my second year of seminary, and as I moved into my new dorm room, I noticed that the previous seminarian in that room had taped this verse to the window.  Whenever I saw rain or snow come down outside that window, those words of God got planted that much deeper into my heart.  The early months of that school year were emotionally tough – so I needed the reminder.  All sorts of questions swirled through my head and threatened to drown me.  Would I be any good as a pastor?  My classmates seemed to know so many more answers than I did, and explain things better.  What if I could not find the right words to convince a member at church of the truth of God’s Scriptures?  What if nobody listened to me?  But then God used this verse to snap me out of those fears and bring me back to reality.  His Word would do the work He sent it to do.  His Word would get ‘r done.  Encouraged by God’s promised I completed my studies, and was ordained here to be your pastor for these 16 years under God’s blessing.
          And now this passage comes along at this third milepost, and it is an encouragement for both you and me.  I would be worried sick about what might happen to your faith without me – except that this passage gives us confidence.  Hear God’s promise remind us that the success and livelihood of this congregation never depended upon me being your pastor.  It was always the Word of God that I spoke – and it will always be into the future.  Whatever successes we had in these last years, it was always because God was sending out His Word from Heaven down to us, to succeed in the purposes for which He sent it.  That same word of God that had the power to create when He said, “Let there be light,” and that same word of God that had the power to give life to dead Lazarus when Christ called him to rise from his grave – that same Word gave power to baptisms, so that I did not pour just plain water, but a life giving water, rich in grace – a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  And even when I was having a bad Sunday morning, that could not change what I gave to you at this Altar.  God’s Word told us that it is Christ’s Body and Blood, and whatever might have been going on in my heart at that moment in time could not change it.  Because it all depends upon God’s Word, not upon me as your pastor.  We face the unknown future with confidence in His Word, because this very day God is sending His Word from Heaven to another man unknown to us – and His Word is working to prepare him to be your pastor for years to come and speak that Word of God to you.
          Isaiah delivered this promise of God to Israel at a pretty significant milepost in their lives.  They lived in dark times, about 500 years after King David had made their nation great and King Solomon had built the Temple, and about 500 more years until Jesus was born.  The Babylonians had defeated them at war, destroyed the Temple of the Lord, and brought the survivors back as slaves to Babylon.  God has promised to bring His faithful people back to the Promised Land where they can wait for the coming Savior. 
But… as days turn into weeks, and months into years, the exiles are still in Babylon.  Nothing seems to change, hope is running dry.  The insults and mockery of the Babylonians made a lot of sense.  Israel lost, so that must mean their gods were stronger than the God of Israel.  So all that talk about the exiles returning to the Promised Land was just empty talk. 
However, the Lord does not give up on them as easily as they give up on Him.  He is patient with His impatient people.  He gives them the picture of rain and snow to help them trust in Him.  They knew rain to be a matter of life and death.  They knew just as much as we do how destructive droughts can get.  God’s Word is like the rain and snow.  His Word is not powerless, but comes down from Heaven to give growth, providing everything we need for a lively spirituality.  The God who provided Bread for their bodies is also providing the Bread of His Word to be food for their souls. 
            God’s Word will accomplish the purposes for which He sent it.  In particular the Lord describes in verses 12 and 13 of today’s text that the people shall in fact go out from Babylon in joy and be led to Jerusalem in peace.  Thorns and briers are replaced by the cypress and myrtle.  Trees in the Bible are a sign of Paradise, while thorns are a sign of man’s sin that has messed things up.  Remember how God had revealed to Adam and Eve that the ground was cursed because they had failed in listening to God.  Thorns and thistles painfully get in our way as we work the ground until we return to the ground in death. 
          Martin Luther once wrote, “The sin underneath all our sin is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands.”  We might proudly think that you or I would not have been so dumb as Adam and Even to take that forbidden fruit.  And yet we take matters into our own hands and ignore God’s commands whenever we live according to our own standards of what works for us instead of trusting what God has said.  Here on a Sunday morning, we acknowledge this as the Word of the Lord.  Yet in so many moments in life, the Word of God loses out to our impulses and our devotion to things that do not last forever. 
          In today’s parable of the Sower, Jesus identifies things that get in the way of us taking His Word to heart.  If you do not really listen in the first place, the Devil will come along and snatch that Word from you like the seed that bounced on the hard path.  Or we can be like the rocky ground when trials and persecution dry out our faith.  Jesus also warns us to watch out for the thorns of life that can choke our faith when we get wrapped up in the cares of this world that shut out God’s light and finally teach us to stop believing in Christ.  When we ask ourselves what gets in my way of paying attention to God’s Word, the answers will show us where the weeds and thorns are in our lives. 
          As I said, thorns are a sign in the Bible of our sins.  But do you remember where else thorns appear in the Scriptures?  On the head of our King as the soldiers pressed that awful crown down upon Him.  And the amazing thing is that Jesus chose to wear it.  He had every chance to sin and go against the Word of God.  He could have saved Himself and come down from the Cross.  Instead, Jesus accomplished the purposes of God and succeeded in the reason God sent Him from Heaven – to save us.  And so Christ suffered that crown of sin at His Cross, even as He shouldered the sharp thorns of our guilt and felt the deadly curse of our disobedience.  So that He could take it away from us.

          God’s Word teaches us who we are – human beings created by God, perfect in the beginning in a perfect world now corrupted by sin.  Yet loved by God’s grace and saved by His mercy.  To hearts that are filled with brokenness God sends His Word of good news, that sins are forgiven in Jesus and death is overcome with Christ’s resurrection.  His Word teaches us to look forward to the new Heavens and the new Earth, the home of righteousness, where there will be no more goodbyes, where thorns and thistles are replaced by the beautiful trees of Paradise.  He promises to gather us there in that land as people who will trust God completely with all our heart and will love each other – even as He has already begun that work in us now by the power of His Word.  Amen.