The 24nd Sunday After Pentecost November 15, 2009
22, 384, 775(1-4) [TLH alt. 290], 775(5-6) [TLH alt. 283]
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Dear friends in Christ Jesus, who is the Living Word:
When I was looking over this text and trying on different themes for size, one of the first that came to mind was “Rain Does Not Fall Up.” I thought it had possibilities especially since it played off of the analogy the Lord offers between the effectiveness of rain and the effectiveness of the Word. Besides that it seemed like a pretty sure “hook”— one that would have you, the reader, thinking, “I’ve got to see where he’s going to go with this one. But that was the problem, I didn’t know where it was going and I’m not sure we would have liked where it ended up. That’s usually an indication that the possible theme probably didn’t reflect any Spirit-intended meaning found in this text. Rain isn’t going to go up and apparently, neither was that theme.
So we settled instead on a much more natural and straightforward theme by which to draw forth the spiritual truth of this text. It may not be a clever hook, but I am confident that it will take us all somewhere that we, in this deceptive and confusing age, definitely need to go. For here in these words of the prophet, we come to learn that God’s Word is effective and sure. and that has everything to do with our survival in this world and the next. I. In It He is to be found, II. In it He is to be known, and III. In it His will is done.
Their standing with God was still the essential question looming over the captive Jews to whom Isaiah addressed these words. He had spoken to them of God’s redeeming love for Israel. He had announced God’s plan to bring His people out of captivity and restore them as His nation. He had even shown them how The Servant—the Messiah — would redeem them by His own suffering. But he could preach to them until he was blue in the face and it wouldn’t matter if he was addressing hearts that were proud, complacent, secure, glibly confident that they would just skate their way through the present difficulties and on into a pleasant hereafter, and without a serious thought in their head about their standing with God. So the first thing Isaiah proclaims about the Word of God is that it is in this Word that God is to be found.
Do you remember Elijah? He was the prophet from long before Isaiah’s time who took on the prophets of Baal and their supporters, Ahab and Jezebel. You probably recall the point in his ministry when he became frustrated and depressed and just wanted to die. At Mount Horeb the Lord proceeded to teach Elijah a lesson by having him observe while God sent a terrific wind that smashed the rocks into pieces, but for all its power, the wind was still, somehow, empty. Then God sent an earthquake and a fire with the same results—there was a lot of action, but they were still empty of real power.
Then the Lord sent “a still, small voice.” Elijah learned that in the gentle, seemingly impotent Word—the Word of the Lord—there is real power. God may be behind amazing and terrifying natural events, but God is found in His Word (cf. 1 Kings 19:1ff).
What is really interesting is the set of people to whom Isaiah directs these words: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” [vv.6-7a] That’s it! The Lord addresses Himself to the wicked, to the man of evil.
Now, the people who heard this may not have looked like our idea of “wicked and evil.” God is speaking to the Jews in captivity, remember, and while there may well have been open criminals among them and rulers who had abused their power and priests who had misled the people, there were a lot of everyday folks like you and me whose sins and guilt were less apparent—to each other, anyway.
When the Lord says “let the wicked forsake his way,” He knows something we often skirt around—sin begins with the heart. Sin corrupts us from within as Jesus said, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). Even good people cannot produce true righteousness in the sight of God. Isaiah acknowledged that further on when he wrote, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
Yet, God comes to the wicked, the immoral, the guilty, and appeals to them, to us! He cries out, “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” That seeking is to search for, to desire, to invest your self in gaining something. We who are lost in sin and under sin’s curse are naturally in need of God. We need to know Him, need to rest ourselves in Him, and draw from His fountains of goodness and truth and life.
He appeals to us to seek Him while He may be found, while He is near. This is a limited-time offer. The time of grace is now, not tomorrow, not next year, not when it seems a convenient time to start listening to God. The time is now for the judgment is at hand and God will not deal kindly with the one who has put Him off until then.
But to the one who hears the call before it is too late, even in the eleventh hour after a life of sin, God will allow Himself to be found. He will forgive. He will pardon. But we find Him, not in the bizarre metaphysics of the East, not in the work-righteous doctrines of Islam, not in the mysterious religions of the pagans, but in the Word of God.
God comes through the Word which He imparted to the prophets and apostles who recorded exactly what He wanted them to say. Time and again the prophets begin their sermons with “thus says the Lord.” They do that because that Word is the only reliable means we have to find God. Faith in that Word becomes faith in the true God. Ultimately, faith in the message of God’s Word steers us to the Eternal Word, the Son of God, who was made flesh and lived among us. When we find that Word we have left the path of wickedness and found God.
That brings us to the next point that Isaiah had to make to his hearers. It is in this Word of God, alone that God is to be known. Even many Christians fall prey to error when they forget that fact.
The message from Isaiah was “let the wicked forsake his way…and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” Then the Lord goes on to say “for My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways My ways.” [v.8] God is telling us that we just aren’t equipped to judge God and His ways. We aren’t able to dissect His mind under the microscope of human understanding. Why does this person get rich? Why does that one die? How can God be good when He seems remote and cruel? These are the questions man asks and for which he often gets no answer. The Jews presumed to challenge God and question His fairness. When they were carried off to Babylon, they sputtered: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God!” (Isaiah 40:27). Isaiah’s answer to such whining was: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28).
Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and the greatest mayhem in heaven and on earth occurs when we try to squish God into our own puny little mold. It’s a little cumbersome, but the Athanasian Creed has it right when it refers to the Triune God as “one Incomprehensible” (TLH p. 53).
That is why the Lutheran ideal of Sola Scriptura, (Scripture alone) is so important and makes our faith so distinctive. We are kept plenty busy reflecting on what God has revealed to us in Scripture. We understand that we have no business speculating about the things God does not tell us, and the reason for that is because in the Word we can be certain that God has provided us with all that we need to know about Him to be saved and to serve Him in this life. Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh (cf. John 1:1ff), once faced a hostile group of Bible scholars. He told them “You search the Scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life. These are they that testify of Me” (John 5.39). If we seek God in His Word we will find, not mere facts about an amazing God, but a pathway to true spiritual life and riches left there for our finding by the God who desires that all men find Him.
Another amazing and vital truth we learn about God’s word is that by this Word God’s will is done. This is where we come back to the rain doesn’t fall up idea. God sends rain falling down from the sky. The fact is that, eventually, rain does fall up in the form of evaporation and water vapor, but not before it has caused the earth to soften with moisture. It doesn’t “fall up” before it has enabled the dormant seeds in the ground to spring forth and grow and in time to become a full harvest of grain, useful to the one who makes bread to eat, as well as to the one who puts some of it back in the ground to grow another crop.
With that wonderful analogy the Lord gives us one of our most powerful testimonies that by His Word, God’s will is effectively done. God’s Word falls from the lips of His servants—from preachers in the church, teachers in the schools, from parents teaching their children, from missionaries among the heathen, from evangelists in our own communities. Wherever that Word falls, it works the ground. It may be that a seed will sprout and grow and ultimately produce fruit. In the hearts of some, that fruit will be repentance and faith and it will become the Bread of Life, nourishing a soul hungry for God. For another, it also provides seed for the sower—the believer who goes out and shares what he knows so that others might know and be saved.
The key is that we are not to think that we somehow can make the Word more effective. It is often said that we can obscure it, make our preaching and witness ineffective, but that is a different matter. What we are to take away from this is absolute confidence that God’s Word doesn’t fall up. It does not evaporate from the lips of the preacher without accomplishing some small, perhaps invisible thing, in the hearts of the listeners. God has, after all, approached sinful man through this Word with a plan and an appeal. He has assured us that it conveys everything that the seeker needs to find the Most High and delight in Him, and it will work.
That last fact is huge. It reminds us that we need to be faithful in preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word and to not shy away from the controversial or the unpopular. It leads us to see that our mission is not to entertain, but to edify. It influences the way we seek to convey the Word—a thoughtfully organized liturgy, for example, or carefully chosen hymns and clear confessional statements. It requires understanding of how all the teachings of God in Scripture ultimately revolve around the concepts of Law and Gospel—the Law showing what is demanded of us, the Gospel proclaiming what has been done for us. The Law bringing us down to the very fringes of Hell, but only so that the Gospel can deliver us up to the very throne of Heaven where Christ is. The Word of God can, does, and will do what God wills to accomplish with it.
Rain and snow come down and crops grow up. God’s Word comes down and faith grows up, souls are transported, and praises are lifted up. So I guess some things that come down, do eventually go back up again. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.