The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost August 9, 2009
22, 294, 43, 44
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Oh that I had a thousand voices
to praise my God with thousand tongues.
My heart, which in the Lord rejoices,
would then proclaim in grateful songs
to all, wherever I might be,
what great things God that done for me. [TLH 30:1]
Dear bondservants of our great Creator-God:
It is strange how certain seemingly insignificant events can leave such a lasting impression. It has been well over 25 years now, for example, and I still remember a seminary professor shaking his head in disapproval when he saw me reading Stanley Karnow’s history, Vietnam, which was, up until that point in time, the single most complete history of the Vietnam War. He said simply, “too soon.” I remember thinking this more than a bit strange—that a post graduate professor would have an objection to reading a history book—until he explained that, in his opinion, no book published in 1983 could possibly correctly portray a war that had ended only eight years earlier. History needs the perspective that only a great deal of time can supply.
He was probably right. Yet it also must be granted that even the broadest view of history often lends itself to some very wrong impressions. The passage of time can lead to a false sense of recognizing a pattern that signifies nothing at all—like the rooster that comes to imagine that his crowing makes the sun rise. This is nowhere more true than in the area of religion. Here’s an example of what that means. Those who trace human history back to the earliest recorded events claim to recognize a pattern in man’s creation of God (Yes, you read that right). Ignoring the fact that the very first man enjoyed a personal relationship with God like no one else, many “scholars” claim that man first created the idea of a god to bless them with such things as good weather, crops, and reproduction. They then created multiple gods that supposedly controlled different aspects of life. It was the Jews, they claim, who developed the idea of one God; and yet, even they first worshipped other gods as inferior to their supreme God. Other religions, so they claim, have simply built on this monotheistic (one god) foundation of the Jews. Christianity basically just added the Virgin Mary and Jesus to the list of deities to be worshipped. Islam, which appeared over five centuries after the death of Christ, simply identified the last of the great prophets as Mohammed. Muslims claim to revere both the Old and New Testaments, along with Jesus and Mary, but they have added the Koran as the last, best, revelation of God through his prophets. So also the Mormons claim their religion as the completion of the incomplete Christian religion by adding their prophet Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon.
So what is the false or misleading impression that is identified by these historians? It is the idea that both religion and man have evolved. Since they can identify a pattern in man’s folly, they believe they have arrived at some legitimate conclusions concerning who or what God really is. They have succeeded, in other words, in turning Genesis on its head and creating God in the image of man. The result is that they deny not only the basic saving tenets of Christianity, they have come to deny the fact that there is a God at all. If there is, so they claim, he certainly does not possess the power credited to him by the world’s religions.
Our text addresses such arrogance. We read from the book of Isaiah, the 55th chapter:
“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.”
These are the words of the one true God. In humble acknowledgement that these are God’s words to man, so we pray, “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Dear fellow Christians, God’s interaction with man certainly progressed over the centuries, but it also most certainly did not evolve—not in the sense of mutation or change at the hand of man. The Christian faith did not begin with the birth or death of Jesus Christ; it is the same religion that God established from eternity and revealed to man already in the Garden of Eden. Already there He promised that the Seed of the woman would ultimately crush the power of Satan. Man “created” Christianity only in the sense that he created the need for Christianity. We made the life and death of Jesus Christ necessary through our disobedience to the laws of our God.
Historians cannot see such things because they can see no record of anyone calling himself a Christian prior to about 50 AD (cf. Acts 11:26). The fact is Adam and Eve were Christians, for they trusted in the promise of God to send a Savior—Christ Jesus. Or consider Abraham, the focal (or divergent) point of the three dominant world religions. The Jews rightly claim him as the father of the Jewish nation. The Muslims claim him as the father of the Arab nations. But Abraham was, above all, a Christian. He too placed his trust in God’s promise that “in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). The “blessing” that benefits all mankind is—and can only be—Jesus Christ, the One who paid for the sins of all mankind.
Historians are also fooled by the seemingly sporadic pattern of God’s revelation to or through man. In other words, since God does not talk to everyone (more specifically to them) they come to doubt that He really communicated with anyone. Again, they thus credit man with the creation of God—men like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Joseph Smith. They put all of these men in the same as those who only imagined that they talked with God and thus created new and improved religions.
Some of the problems with this sort of view of the history of religions are obvious. Such a view obviously undermines what we have come to know and believe about our God. Other dangers might not be so obvious. It is that kind of danger that we examine today, most notably the idea that the Christian faith is outdated and impotent, having been superseded by “new and improved” religious beliefs. This is closely associated with the myth that God is not living, active, and powerful in His dealings with us today, or that God is something less—much less—than we think He is.
With that we turn again to the opening words of our text—powerful and revealing words that set the stage for our study: “‘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.” [vv.8-9]
The basic premise here is that, far from creating God, man simply cannot fully comprehend God. We are not capable, since He is infinitely greater and unimaginably more complex. It is the worm trying to comprehend the fisherman, or the hammer the master builder. We simply don’t have a clue. Our instructions in this matter were summed up by our God through the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). Man, who is incapable of comprehending God, is commanded by that God to simply accept that He is and that He exists on an infinitely higher plain than we.
Is that the end of it then? Is that all there is to the Christian religion, namely, “You can't understand God, so don’t even try”? Are we all, in other words, supposed to be good agnostics, believing that there is a God, but that He is an unknowable, unapproachable enigma? By no means! That same Psalmist concluded Psalm 46 with these words: “The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:11). The two statements have to be taken together and when they are we gain the profound sense of comfort and assurance that our God intended. We are indeed supposed to “let God be God,” but we are also to take great comfort in the fact that this God—who is wise and knowing beyond our ability to comprehend—is nonetheless living, active, and powerful among us even today.
Let me give you a lesser example to help prove the greater. About a year ago Michael Debakey died at age 99. So what? Never heard of him. Why should we care? The fact is several of you might well owe your lives to this gifted surgeon. He is the man who pioneered modern heart bypass surgery and invented numerous devices that are critical to heart patients still today. More importantly, Debakey trained thousands of surgeons who went on to perform millions of life-saving bypass operations around the world. One such surgeon may well have touched your life, or the life of a parent or grandparent.
Suppose you had been one of those surgeons who went to train under Dr. Debakey. Would you have doubted him? Contradicted him? Belittled him? Or would you simply have accepted the fact that he knew more than you and sought to learn from his expertise?
How much more than are we to revere our God, acknowledging that we can only learn from Him, never teach or contradict him.
How is this true in a practical way in our lives today? We can readily come to grips with the fact that our God is so far above us that we could never fully comprehend or “wrap our minds around” Him, yet how are we to understand Him as “with us” even today? How can we accept that we cannot comprehend God, but still recognize and appreciate his power and presence among us?
We live in a time when God does not speak directly into the ear of a prophet. This ought not alarm us. There have been many such times down through history. In 1 Samuel 3:1 we read: “And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation.” Not long after, however, God began his ongoing dialog with the prophet, Samuel. We are again in an era when “there is no widespread revelation.” This, to me, is a most comforting truth. Things are different now because the Savior has been born and we have received the complete Bible to guide us. Those who accept the idea of continuing revelation (through popes or prophets or councils) can never be sure what they are to believe from one day to the next. We have no such fear or uncertainty.
Our great danger is in coming to doubt God’s power among us today. Make no mistake, God is living, active, and powerfully working among us today through His holy Word. Our text leaves no doubt of this: “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.” [vv.10-11] Again in the New Testament we have this assurance: “For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
We hear such words, but do we really take the time to contemplate what they mean—the full import as it relates to our use of that Word of God? When you bring the Word of God—the Law and the Gospel—into the life of a human being, are you really aware of the power that you are wielding? Do you ever stop to consider that the same God who created the universe has also promised to bring His unfathomable power to bear through that Word? Let’s ask the question another way: “Do you believe that God can be trusted?” If so, then it is He who has promised in our text to “accomplish what He pleases” through His powerful Word. It is not our business to try to fully understand our God, but we do know what His will is for our time of grace here on earth. His will is that we bring the power of His Word into the lives of every single human being, including our own lives. That is the same Great Commission that our Savior gave us prior to His ascension.
What then is the expected result of the working of this living, active, powerful Word of God? While we cannot know the whole picture, we can know the greatest part—saving faith in Jesus Christ and the eternal life that results. Before you dismiss that with an, “Oh that,” consider for a moment what could have a more lasting impact on any human being? Eternity is forever. You and I have the power at our disposal to turn a human being from eternal death to eternal life. This is the very message of hope that Jesus Christ has given us, the power that He wants us to put to use: that God the Father, in Christ, has declared every single sinner to be “not guilty.” He made this declaration, not because He decided to overlook sin, but because He visited the punishment for all sin on one man, Jesus Christ, His Son! Think of that! Our well-deserved punishment was meted out instead upon His beloved Son who certainly did not deserve it. This same Prophet Isaiah put it this way: “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Our sins are forgiven. God has declared them so in Christ. Heaven in ours.
God today whispers neither in your ear nor mine. Yet the very Creator of heaven and earth is living, active, and powerful among us even today, working the unseen miracle of conversion and life eternal every day. Thanks be to God for the privilege of working in His service with so great a power. God grant that we never fail to appreciate the honor that is ours and the living, active power that is at our disposal. 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.