"Squaring Things Up" #80-41
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 16, 2013
By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Why Is Christianity So Unpopular Today?)
Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed so that you might know God's real comfort and grace! Amen.
The Prophet Isaiah is one who speaks for God. But he's not like the preachers of today. Most preachers of today would not spend most of the first 39 chapters of a book telling its recipients that they are to be judged and punished for their sins. The prophets of today tend to tell you that you are going to be so blessed even though you might be happily disobedient to God for a time. Things are going to be just fine because you know God loves you no matter what. One Christian leader in Germany opposing the Nazis during WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he called that cheap grace. Well, cheap grace is not the message of grace in the Bible; Old Testament or New.
God's grace is a free gift, that's true. God's comfort is an eternal comfort and peace, that's true. It may be offered free to you, but that's because its eternal costs have been paid by another in your place. It may be an offer of undeserved kindness, but it was earned for you by the very life and death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That's the kind of double portion of comfort that Isaiah is preaching about, that's the kind of comfort that only Christ can bring!
Isaiah preaches strong medicine for a serious problem. He preaches the comfort that only God can bring for a rebellious and disobedient people. We need to remember that the people in our text for today, the Israelites in the Old Testament, they were digging their own graves. Isaiah was warning them. They were heading into a hopeless situation of their own making. Very soon, they were about to be exiled, taken captive, literally stripped of their dignity because of their rebellion and ungodly arrogance towards the God who had called them to be His own. What is so amazing, though, is that even when that day of their just exile comes, even in the desert of their indignities, God comes for them. He comes for them with a message of an even greater grace!
But that kind of comfort, that kind of grace is a message of hope to people who know that they are in exile because of their sins. That message is a message of grace to people who know that they don't deserve to come home again. That's the message Isaiah preaches to a people who are about to see the folly of their rebellious ways and the depth of God's grace and mercy to them even then.
But, how is that kind of message heard today? We are a people enamored with our own sense of fairness, not God's view of justice. And even when it comes to things like justice, it's to be on our terms, not the terms of God's Word. Some have even told me that people are rejecting the Bible's message of justice and mercy today because they don't appreciate a God who would send His Son to suffer and die for our sins in our place. After all, they say, "what kind of God would do that?"
We so-called modern people tend to be a people who are enamored with temporal fairness on our terms, even as we jettison God's righteousness and justice, even making light of His offer of mercy.
But that doesn't really make us modern at all, does it? That tends to make us just like the ancient people of Israel, rebellious, disobedient to the things of God. Israel rejected Isaiah's warnings, made light of His counsel; and time after time, they did what was right in their eyes and not God's. Sounds a lot like us today, doesn't it?
But, what if I told you that God's got to make things square again in order for there to be true, lasting comfort and peace, not only to the people of Israel back in those days, but for people like us today. Well, Isaiah paints the picture. He says, God is even going to have to cut a path of salvation right in the middle of the chaos of our sinful world, for there is a time to make a way for the Lord.
"To make straight in the desert a highway for our God, Isaiah says. (When) every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together."
It's a time when God's going to square things with the sin and rebellion of this world. He's going to execute justice so that there might truly again be peace. When His justice is accomplished, eternal comfort is achieved!
I've heard people shout, "No justice, no peace!" But when sinners say it, it often sounds like a threat, doesn't it? Well, when God says it, "Real justice served, real peace delivered," that's a promise.
But we don't like those terms, do we? Because God's justice calls every one of us to account! It levels the playing field before God. We don't make the rules, we can't live up to the rules, and we are judged by the rules. We are incapable, yet we're a culpable people. If comfort had anything to do with us, we'd all be lost.
And that's why His offer of comfort is special. The comforting going on here is not in the sympathizing sense of the word, but rather in the encouraging sense of the word. For there to be this comfort, God is going to have to act on our behalf, in spite of us, for our own forgiveness and salvation.
You see, we need a way home to God, there is work to be done. Just look at the effort that it takes to make any path home, even in the world in which we live.
Think of the effort that it took to make the First Transcontinental Railroad. The "Pacific Railroad" and later known as the "Overland Route" was a 1,900-mile continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869. It was built to connect to the Eastern U.S. rail network. It was a transportation, when it was done, from coast to coast.
Now, think about it. Think of the effort that it took to get this work done! Think of the sacrifice! The Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by hand. Workers drove spikes into mountains, filled the holes with black powder, and blasted through the rock inch by inch. Handcarts moved the drift from cuts to fills. Bridges, including one 700 feet long and 126 feet in the air, had to be constructed to cross streams. Thousands of workers, including Irish and German immigrants, former Union and Confederate soldiers, freed slaves, and especially Chinese immigrants played a part in the construction. In fact, Chinese laborers first went to work for the Central Pacific as it began crossing California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1865. At one point, the work was so labor intensive that Chinese workers were lowered in hand-woven reed baskets to drill blasting holes in the rock. They placed the explosives in each hole, lit the fuses, and were, hopefully, pulled up before the powder was detonated. Explosions, freezing temperatures, and avalanches in the High Sierras killed hundreds. Many worked and sacrificed to make that way through the mountains, the valleys, and the desert!
But we're not talking about highways and railroads here. When you are in the exile of your sin, the valleys of your own despair, unable to overcome the mountaintops that seem to be in your way, preventing you from getting home to be with the Lord who loves you, even more difficult things need to be done, eternal barriers need to be overcome, the straight highway of God's grace needs to be built to get to you and me.
God's solution is amazing, even in the midst of the coming distress. Isaiah reminds Israel and us of God's work that will be done when He says, "Behold, the Lord God comes with might and His arm rules for Him, Behold His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a Shepherd. He will gather the lambs in His arms."
Even when God squares things, brings things to account, it has to do with His ultimate work on our behalf, to bring us back to Himself. Grace, and mercy, and comfort, they come at a cost. Real justice, real comfort, real forgiveness, real peace!
Today, you and I are privileged to see the fullness of that comfort that was hoped for in our text, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Such good news has to do with all the things that God has done to reconcile the world unto Himself. And we can see that most fully in the person and work of Jesus, when He dies that we might live!
So, when people ask you, "What happened to Jesus on the cross?" The common response is that He was executed. That is very true as far as it goes. But, it doesn't go far enough to square things with God's just demands for our sin. Oh, Jesus indeed suffered death for us, a supreme sacrifice; but Christ went even beyond this supreme sacrifice. He not only paid for our sin but He became our sin. Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." On the tree of Calvary, Jesus was damned for our sins. There He ultimately squared things with His Father's justice, met the terms, by both dying and by having His Father turn His back on Him instead of on you and me. Real justice earned, real comfort achieved!
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.3
So, if you want to debate God about making everything fair in this life to your satisfaction, Isaiah is no help for you or me. But what he is offering is a mercy and comfort that can be yours now and forever. And that's what God wants for you today, my friend. So, when you think that God doesn't treat you fairly, thank Him!
For God, the Holy One, doesn't treat you fairly according to your sin; and God, the Merciful One, doesn't treat you fairly according to His blessings. For when we repentantly turn to Him, Isaiah says that He can't wait to lavish us with His grace.
With God there is a double portion of mercy; comfort squared for people like you and me, people who didn't deserve it. Not only do we see double comfort (comfort, comfort my people, says your God), but it's a promise in the midst of their hard service, their just discipline. But even in tough times, they are in the Lord's hand, the One who ultimately brings comfort and grace! Like Paul says in Romans 5, "where sin abounded, grace did superabound!" Oh, what grace, what love, and what comfort is yours and mine when you trust in Jesus and put your life in His hands!
Now I can't make you believe in God, only the Holy Spirit can do that through God's Word of grace in the Bible; but if you are parched today because of your life in the desert of debt or of broken relationships, if the valley of your life seems more like a crevice of despair from which there is no escape, if the mountains of your dreams seem forever beyond your reach; hear this, God has supplied all that you need to come home to Him; to be blessed by Him, and to live an abundant life of grace with Him forever.
The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. The mouth is 90 miles across. So much water comes from the Amazon that they can detect its currents 200 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. One irony of ancient navigation is that sailors in the ancient times died for lack of water when they were caught in the windless waters of the South Atlantic. They were often adrift, helpless, dying of thirst. But sometimes a lost ship would approach a native ship from those waters and beg for help. "We're out of water," they would say. "Can you spare any water?" That native ship would simply tell them to drop their buckets in the waters right below them. You see, the Amazon had brought fresh water to them even in the midst of the salt waters of the ocean!
Think of it this way, fresh waters of grace and comfort in the midst of the salt-water parchedness of our lives, that's what God alone can make available to us. And that is what He does. When He says, "Comfort, Comfort," in the middle of our distress, He does all that is needed to make it possible. The destruction and degradation caused by sin and rebellion bore a heavy cost. But, in Christ, the capable One became culpable. He took the blame. He evened the score by paying sin's eternal price and He delivered that fresh water of grace to us right where we're at. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Grace, life, and salvation! Comfort, comfort my people says our God and it's delivered by our God. Isaiah proclaims such a promise to the peoples in the midst of the chaos of their day. Isaiah's words ring true still today. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 1:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
So, we're invited to trust in that comfort for our very lives, but we are also challenged, even privileged to be a herald of His Good News to others. We who have been comforted can now comfort others with the Good News that God got down to our level by becoming a man in Jesus Christ and squared things with His Divine justice in that Jesus became sin for us and in doing so removed the guilt of sin from us. A new path now lay ahead of us; there is a way home because of God's love for us in Christ.
Today is Father's Day and so much of the imagery of today's lessons reflects the kind of love that fathers are to show to their families, to their wives and their children. There is work to be done, not in earning our salvation, but in delivering that love to those whose lives are entrusted to our care. Fathers, you have been comforted by God with His Word, let no barrier get in your way to bring the love of Jesus Christ, the comfort you've received, to bring that to those you care about.
Like the Motown song says,
There ain't no mountain high enough,
There ain't no valley low enough
There ain't no river wide enough,
To keep me from getting to you.
Well, maybe we should sing it this way; that there's nothing that will get in His way of His life getting to you. But we too, especially as dads, we will roll up our sleeves and do all in our power, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to do the work of making sure that everyone in our lives knows that comfort that only God can bring!
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God." Rejoice that the path was cut by Christ, so that we could come home to God! Rejoice that Jesus squared things up through the cross to unleash God's mercy for all. Rejoice with me right now, my friend, that when your life is in Christ's hands, He is the Source, the Strength, and the Certainty of God's comfort for you now and forever!
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for June 16, 2013
Topic: Why Is Christianity So Unpopular Today?
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz responds to questions. I'm Mark Eischer. Pastor, as we watch TV and the movies, it seems that Christianity has become pretty unpopular nowadays. Why do you suppose that's true and is there anything we can do about it?
SELTZ: Wow, another timely question, Mark. It's true that Christianity, from many people's point of view, isn't as positively viewed in the West as in other times in history even though in other parts of the world it is being enthusiastically embraced. But here for the reasons for such unpopularity, real or imagined, may be different than most people think?
ANNOUNCER: Oh, how do you mean?
SELTZ: Well, I think that most people today have this notion that Christians are somehow less tolerant than other people, even a bit mean spirited?
ANNOUNCER: Yeah, but knowing the other believers that I know, they are the exact opposite of that.
SELTZ: I can say the same thing too. Now, that doesn't mean that we as Christians have done everything right or that we haven't been poor examples of the love of Jesus at times, that's for sure. But if people would be fair about such things, the Christian worldview has produced one of the most tolerant, diverse societies in the world and Christians are some of the most giving people in the world. So this hatred or caricature of believers has got to go much deeper than that.
ANNOUNCER: When we look at how Christians are portrayed in TV or in the movies, you don't see many positive models of the faith portrayed in pop culture.
SELTZ: I think you've hit on something there, Mark. Pop culture; the modern, TV-pop culture started in the 60s and 70s. And remember, that movement was deemed a revolution by its practitioners. All restraints were fair game and any institution that had any cultural authority, they were enemy no. 1.
ANNOUNCER: And the church was and still is an authority in the culture even today.
SELTZ: That's right. So in one sense, to those who have a different moral, spiritual, or ethical agenda, especially if it involves a libertine lifestyle; well, the church is the one place that seems to always get in the way, they're always saying "no."
ANNOUNCER: One thing's for sure, people don't like to be told "no" about anything.
SELTZ: Exactly. And that's true even if there is a greater "yes" coming. But, I think that there is an even deeper reason for the caricatures today, even hatred. And, this may shock our listeners. If you think about it, Jesus was hung on the cross for this reason too.
ANNOUNCER: Must be really serious.
SELTZ: I think it is. Many people today hate the message of Jesus Himself because He claims that He is the only way for this world to be saved. If you remember in John 14, Jesus literally says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me!"
ANNOUNCER: And for someone who doesn't know the unique love of Jesus that can sound scandalous.
SELTZ: That's a great word for it too; in fact, theologians call this main teaching, "The Scandal of Particularity," namely that God saves only through His Son's death and resurrection for the world. But the Bible is even more clear that this particular salvation is for all people! Christ died for all; His sacrifice is for all; and His promises are for all. But, for people who want things their own way, no matter what, that can still be a source of real hatred for Jesus Himself and it sure is a reason to caricature His people, no matter how nice they are.
ANNOUNCER: Okay, well, what should we do?
SELTZ: First, realize that such things will always exist. For people in Jesus' day even misrepresented the Lord Himself for their own gain.
ANNOUNCER: And when you think of Jesus as the perfect Son of God, the One who did all things right, even He had to deal with this.
SELTZ: Yeah, that is a really sobering thought. But the bigger challenge is to deal with this and keep on the mission. You know, keep striving to be the people that God wants us to be in Jesus, loving people on His terms, even loving our enemies as Jesus loves us in hopes of them seeing that this particularity of Jesus as Savior is good news for them; it's good news for all.
ANNOUNCER: And living the Christian life is never going to be easy this side of heaven.
SELTZ: But, God promises that it will always be worth it. The goal is to strive to make Him known to others in spite of the cultures obstacles, real or imagined.
ANNOUNCER: And as we close today, that's also the reason Lutheran Hour Ministries exists, to help people be the best witnesses for Christ that they can be, whatever the odds or the situation. Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Today Your Mercy Calls Us" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)
"Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven" arr. John Behnke. From For All Seasons, vol. 2 by John Behnke (© 2001 John A. Behnke) Concordia Publishing House