The Word of Our God Stands Forever
Jennifer Needham, St. Paul Lutheran Seminary student preached at our 100th worship service.
Some of you may know this about me, maybe not everyone, but some of you may know that I used to teach Sunday school, and really not all that long ago. I taught a combined class of kindergarteners, first, and second graders, and one of the things I wanted to teach them was how to memorize their weekly Bible verses.
Today’s reading from Isaiah contains one of my most favorite verses, Isaiah 40:8, which reads, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever”. This just happens to be one that I had my class memorize.
The problem was that they were too young to read, or at least not very well, so I had to get creative. I started out with some hand motions they could do to help them remember the words, but you know….Kids! In no time, they were all up out of their seats, breaking out in song and dance. So I thought, I’m just going to go with this. We came up with a few dance moves the kids could do while reciting their Bible verse, to help them memorize the words.
It just so happens that one of those students is here today, when that verse just so happens to be part of our first reading. I have already spoken with Stephanie, and she has graciously agreed to teach dance lessons after the service for anyone who would like to memorize Isaiah 40:8. I’ll be there.
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lord, please make this message your message today, and make my words your own. Amen.
Our reading from Isaiah today speaks a word of comfort and deliverance for the Jews in exile under Assyrian rule, a promise that their punishment will soon end. God used the Assyrians as his instrument of the judgment he pronounced against his people. The Jews had turned from God, disobeyed him, and broken his laws. He empowered the Assyrians to conquer them, and those Jews who survived the siege were sent into exile. These were a people living in a foreign land, against their will, and there was nothing they could do about it because it was the will of God. As the prophet Isaiah had warned them, God had spoken, and their punishment followed. They were slaves, living lives not unlike those they had lived under Pharoah in Egypt centuries earlier. Tired of fighting so hard, some of them adapted to their new surroundings, or even assimilated into the culture. But regardless of how they lulled their minds into complacency in order to survive their misery, it was still not their choice to be there, and they mourned for the life they’d lost.
Slaves here in America a few hundred years ago knew this kind of oppression well, felt that deep pain grinding at their hearts, numbing their minds, and deadening their souls. They sometimes accepted the misery of their situation, the hopelessness of their futures, and many were rendered passive by the chains of bondage. But they weren’t silent.
A beautiful tradition of African-American slave songs arose in the midst of that suffering. These songs illustrate how overwhelming despair cannot overcome faith.
You may have heard these lyrics to “Go Down, Moses” before:
Go down Moses,
‘Way down in Egypt land
Tell ol’ Pharaoh
To let my people go.
These slave songs gave the community a way to express its frustration with current circumstances and a hope for the future; a way to cope with their present oppression and unwavering faith in God as the deliverer of the oppressed.
The spiritual song “Steal Away to Jesus,” wasn’t just a song, but was also used as a code to assist slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here
My Lord, He calls me
He calls me by the thunder
The trumpet sounds within my soul.
The slaves surely heard the comfort of God’s voice in that song, in that melody of freedom to come, just as the Jewish exiles found hope in Isaiah’s message of care and provision from the Lord.
Although the slaves here in this country certainly are not to blame for their circumstances, the same cannot be said for the Jewish exiles of which Isaiah spoke. They knew they didn’t deserve for their punishment to be cut short, and to be restored to a right relationship with the God of all creation. They had done wrong, they had spurned his love, they hadn’t trusted him, and they hadn’t kept the covenant. In other words, they deserved this punishment. That realization must have been hard to swallow.
The Children’s Chat — about bugs and slime
Imagine their joy when God spoke again through his prophet, to comfort them in exile, and pronounce that an end to their pain would come. Imagine the goodness of their God. Imagine the slave songs they must’ve sung. Feel the depth of simultaneous pain and exaltation.
But had the Jews simply served their sentence, done their time, and now were to be set free? No. The penalty for transgressing God’s law is death. Was God under any obligation whatsoever to save these exiles from the fate they themselves had chosen? No.
But he is a God of mercy, and he did provide a way for their punishment to someday end. This passage is a message for God’s people to prepare for the coming of their Savior. As Isaiah writes, “A voice cries: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3) There is good news for the poor, the captives will be set free, the blind will see (Luke 4:18), and the dead will be made alive. Freedom is coming for the Jews, in the form of a little baby, to be named Jesus.
What a contradiction, for a little baby to be the Savior of the world. The truth is so hidden, in fact, that only faith recognizes this baby as the messiah. Faith heard Isaiah prophesy many years earlier that Jerusalem’s punishment will end. God will lovingly comfort his people, gather his lambs in his arms, and lead his flock to freedom (Isaiah 40:11).
How the Jews of faith must have felt to hear God’s words of comfort through Isaiah, and to feel his love for them, even as their punishment was ongoing. They knew how deeply they had sinned. Can you imagine how awful that must have felt? We don’t like how sin makes us feel. When we know we’ve done wrong, we feel ashamed. We feel dirty. We feel bad about ourselves, and we’ve all got something that we’ve done that makes us feel that way.
There was a man and his daughter, traveling to a conference in a nearby state where the father was going to be giving an important speech to a large group of colleagues. He was preoccupied about his speech, and tied up with all the worries in his head. Although his daughter tried valiantly to make conversation and take his mind off his upcoming speech, he was cranky, and irritable. He didn’t want to talk about it. So they drove, mostly in silence, until they reached the big city where they were going, and of course they arrived in the middle of rush hour traffic. His irritation grew and he impatiently switched lanes back and forth, trying to get there a little faster, and his anger at the other drivers around him grew too. His daughter kept mostly quiet, except to point out once that the GPS had just rerouted them, and he needed to get over a couple of lanes to make the next exit. He snapped at her, “I know how to drive!” so she stayed silent for the rest of the trip.
When they arrived, he parked the car and knew he needed to apologize. But he was so stressed out about this speech, and his blood pressure was still high from that harrowing drive through rush hour traffic in the city. As they got out of the car, he just told her, “I’m sorry about all that.”
She stood there for just a split second, looking at him while he looked at her. Then she took a couple of steps toward him and, leaning in a bit, and with an almost-smile, she kissed him on the cheek. Then she turned around and began walking toward the building, leaving him bewildered and speechless behind her.
He wondered what just happened, then the slow dawn of awareness washed over him. “She just forgave me,” he thought, “even though I don’t deserve it. Even though I was completely awful to her, when she hadn’t done anything wrong, and I took out my anger and frustration on her, and even my apology was pretty sorry, and she just forgave me.”
I know we can all imagine how this man must have felt, because we’ve all been there. He knew he’d done something wrong; he was ashamed; he felt dirty, like he’d missed the mark, like he just didn’t measure up. He was a sinner…Just like you, and me. In that moment, he realized how much he didn’t deserve her forgiveness, and yet she’d forgiven him anyway, because she loved him.
And now you know how Jesus loves us. We don’t deserve his love. We don’t deserve forgiveness. And we need to realize that we are beggars at the feet of the King. We depend upon the compassion in our Father’s heart, to send his only begotten Son to save us, dead in our sin. And he reaches down to his feet, to pull us beggars up, and he makes us alive. Whether we’ve yelled at our kids, been impatient in traffic, succumbed to temptation of one kind or another, or not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we trust in the promise of God to redeem us.
We can see our dependence on God in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.” As Luther says, “What does this mean?” The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also. We can’t do it ourselves.
We are a great fellowship of beggars. Only the beggars are worthy of the promise of God to raise them up. Only those of us who realize how much we don’t deserve it, will receive it. Only to us is the promise given.
Through the grace of God, through the love of Christ, you have freedom from your sin. You have life, and you have it abundantly (John 10:10). You are forgiven, by the King. Mercy and love are always God’s last words. Even after your sin and disobedience, even after his wrath and discipline, he speaks to you in love…just like he did thousands of years ago to the exiles living in slavery in a foreign land.
Advent is a time of preparation. The Gospel began with John the Baptist in the wilderness, baptizing for repentance in preparation and proclaiming the glory of the one to come. So we should prepare, for as the prophets foretold, our King is coming.
The Word of God never returns to him empty, without accomplishing that for which it was sent forth (Isaiah 55:11), and the Word of God made flesh is Jesus (John 1:14). He comforts you. He has redeemed you. He has granted you salvation. “The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God, stands forever.” And as Stephanie will tell you, that’s from Isaiah 40:8. Maybe it is time to sing and dance when reciting that verse.
In the name of Christ. Amen.