Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Isaiah 51:1-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost + August 27, 2017
Text: Isaiah 51:1-6

The year was around 700 BC.  Judah was facing destruction at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the last holdout, now that the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen some 20 years before.  But now even Jerusalem had Sennacherib’s troops laying siege against her.  The future of the Temple of God itself was in jeopardy.  Would God really forsake the place where He had promised to dwell among His people?
As for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, things were looking bleak.  People they knew had been slaughtered.  Others whom they had known to be upstanding Israelites were now doubting if the Lord was with them, and they were thinking about deserting to the Assyrians.  After all, maybe the king of Assyria was onto something.  He had said, “Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?’”[1]
The remnant of God’s people appeared to be getting smaller all the time.  The odds were stacked against them.  It was truly a bleak time.
But it’s to this besieged group that the Lord speaks, specifically to those faithful whose eyes were watching their numbers dwindle:
51 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
                        look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
          Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
                        for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
Remember where you came from, and what God’s people started as. Every year when the Israelites would go up to offer some of their firstfruits with thanksgiving to God, they would make the offering with this statement of faith: “A wandering Aramean [Jacob] was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”[2]  It started with Abraham, and out of his offspring, an entire nation grew.  All this is from God, who created even out of nothing by His omnipotent Word.
But it doesn’t stop with a single nation.  Out of Abraham, God raised up a Seed in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”[3]
Take time to ponder that, brothers and sisters, children of Abraham through faith.  God fulfilled His promise to make Abraham’s offspring more numerous than the stars in the heavens[4]—in spite of wars, death, bouts of unfaithfulness, wicked kings, and foreign occupation, and even the destruction of earthly temples and the loss of Jerusalem.  In spite of all this earthly tumult, God has fulfilled and will fulfill His Word.
You, who fear the Lord and seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, He is calling you to your origins so that you have strength for the upheaval that batters the Church today.
Christians in the western world have enjoyed great prosperity, but it seems to be over now.  America, one of the last holdouts, a so-called “Christian nation” by some, has turned against her Creator.  As a reflection of that, church attendance is down across the board.  The Great Awakenings have fallen asleep again.  A cultural war now exists between Judeo-Christian values and the animalistic, euphoria-seeking ideals of happiness, tolerance, and self-fulfillment.  The Christian Church, even though it doesn’t have physical borders, is under siege.
It’s times like this that get the nostalgia going.  We dream about the better days gone past, where everyone we could think of was Christian or had a respect for religion.  We want to think back to the “good old days” of this congregation—when there was a large choir, droves of kids in Sunday School, and packed pews.  We want to look back to even 3 or 4 years ago, when a beloved long-time pastor was at the helm.
Those are good things to rejoice about and aspire to.  But the Lord tells you to look back further than that!  Look to how the Christian Church is even in this place, or America, or central Europe, or Rome, or Israel.  For the answer to that, you need to not only look back in time, but also look up, to God, who brought about all these things.
          Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
                        for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
                      For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
                        and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
                        joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
It is the Lord who preserves and prospers His Church, who keeps the faithful in the one true faith—even in bleak times.  Even out of those dark times, God is abundantly able to restore His people.  He can take them from mourning and trembling to gladness, thanksgiving, and singing.
Ah, but we are all too apt to limit our vision to what we can see and predict.  In our lifetimes, we’ve seen the degrading of the visible fellowship of the Church.  We’ve witnessed the increase of false religion and everything ungodly.
But, the Church that confesses Jesus Christ is not founded on common values or people of a particular occupation or class.  If it were, then yes, it will fade away when people’s values change or their interest in religion wanes.  If this is all just a matter of winning people’s hearts to a particular cause, then we should employ every device that the prevailing culture does.  We should have a lobbying machine the way the LGBT cause has progressed in the courts and the schools.  We ought to employ advertising and social media the way the Mormons do to get into people’s hearts.  We should take opinion polls so we can say and do the things people like so that they will feel comfortable and relaxed and want to be a part of this.   Don’t tell young people that sex is something God only gives to husbands and wives, and only when they are husbands and wives—because, after all, they might leave the church when they hear this!
The Church is more than a human invention.  So, the Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”[5]  The rock is not a person, or particular congregation, or the Lutheran church.  The Rock is the heaven-given confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  When our faith is built on this rock, what can the shifting affections of man do to it?  When it comes from God, it is eternal.  It is as almighty as He is.  It is as powerful as His Word, which creates out of nothing and even raises the dead.
Whether in times of prosperity or persecution, look to God, for He alone is the Rock from which we were hewn.  You won’t always be around.  The people and trends that trouble you now won’t always be around.   But, He isn’t going anywhere.  His Church isn’t going anywhere.  Look up; He’s always there and always the same.
          Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
                        for the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
                        but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.
[1] Isaiah 36:18
[2] Deuteronomy 26:5
[3] Galatians 3:27, 29
[4] Genesis 15:5
[5] Matthew 16:16-18