Sunday, December 06, 2020

God's Love for Exiles

Here's online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the video, is the text of today's message.

Isaiah 40:1-11

This past week, a person I’ve known for eighteen years through blogging and social media talked about how hard this pandemic has been. It reminds her of when, several years ago, she and her late husband, then suffering from dementia, moved to Chapel Hill. She felt so isolated, that almost as soon as arriving, she tried to move back to Chicago. But the development to which she wanted to go had no openings. She had to stay in Chapel Hill. She found solace in her work as an editor for a major scientific journal and the connections she made through blogging until she eventually, she integrated into their new community. But, in these days of COVID-19, she finds herself feeling isolated again.

Can you understand some of what she feels?

I can. I’ve seen my dad twice since March. I’ve been inside a store once--to get a flu shot--since then. Ann and I have eaten at a restaurant twice with friends--once indoors early enough in the day to beat any crowd, once outdoors. We’ve made one visit to another couple’s house, where we sat on the screened-in porch. I’ve seen our daughter once, our son and daughter-in-law, not at all. And, because of our small current facility and our high level of community spread, we’ve all only worshiped in-person together a few times since this cursed disease arrived.

We all know that these kinds of sacrifices are necessary. As my dad remarked to me recently, just as a previous generation had to make sacrifices to defeat the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan, this generation of Americans is being called upon to make sacrifices to defeat a disease that, in a matter of days, will have killed more Americans than were killed during all of World War II. Masking, social distancing, staying at home except for essential purposes: These are the sacrifices that love of God and love of neighbor call us to make. But such sacrifices are isolating.

We miss seeing family and friends.

We miss interaction at work.

We’re Zoomed out.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright isn’t exaggerating when he says that these days, we, and much of the world, are living in exile, far from loved ones and friends, from normal life, from the familiar.

And it’s hard.

Necessary, but still hard.

Our first Bible lesson for this morning, Isaiah 40:1-11, is set in the heavenly council as God commands that His exiled people be set free to return to their home.

They would be free, finally, from the punishment for sin that had caused God to isolate them from the homeland He’d once given them, from their homes, from the worship they’d once experienced together.

The particular exile that this section of Isaiah seems to refer to is the one into which the people of Judah entered when God allowed His people to be conquered by the Babylonians. Their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians had been God’s punishment for their long, unrepentant idolatry, injustice, sexual immorality, financial dishonesty, economic exploitation of the weak and the different, and other sins. The Babylonians sent many of God’s people to Babylon to be servants. 

But the orders given by God in today’s first lesson to three different groups of servants also apply to us today. That’s because of what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus came to set free us from our common exile of sin, death, and darkness. Take a look at our lesson, please.

It begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 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. A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

Here, God commands that a message be spoken, first of all, to the exiled people of Judah that His condemnation for their sin was coming to an end. They had fulfilled their sentence of exile and isolation for turning their backs on Him. He would allow them to return to the promised land.

But God is also speaking to all people made aware by His Holy Spirit through His Word of their sin and the eternal condemnation it brings. Through this Word today, God is telling us we need a Savior Who will forgive the sins of the repentant, make right with God all who believe in that Savior Jesus, and set us free to live eternally with God in our true homeland, the place where God dwells.

In Jesus, God sets free all who repent and believe in Him from the exile in which the whole human race has lived since Adam and Eve rebelled and God sent them away from Eden. In Jesus, God reaches out to us and promises that as we trust in Him and await our resurrections into our eternal homeland, to be with us always!

Friends, even now, during a global pandemic, when we can’t worship in person together, Jesus hasn’t forgotten you. He’s as close as His Word, as His Sacrament, as prayer made in His name.

In the middle verses of today’s lesson, Isaiah reports that in God’s heavenly council next, “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ [The answer:] ‘All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.’”

The condition of sin into which all sons and daughters of Adam are born has left us vulnerable, mortal. Our time in exile during this pandemic has underscored the depths of our vulnerability and mortality.

While most of those who die of COVID are older or people with underlying conditions, we also know that thirty-year-old nurses and twenty-eight-year-old teachers, and forty-year-old bodybuilders have been felled by it and that many in their twenties through forties are dealing with long-haul health challenges.

The pandemic proves that you and I are like grass that withers and flowers that fall. We see with renewed clarity how desperately we need to hear “the word of God [that] endures forever”: The word that reminds us that while “the wages of sin is death,” (Romans 6:23), “whoever believes [in Jesus] and is baptized will be saved…” (Mark 16:16) from sin...from death...from everlasting exile from God, the giver of all life.

At the end of our lesson, Isaiah reports on more of what he heard in the heavenly council: “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:9-11)

However long our pandemic exile may last, we have a Good Shepherd, God the Son, born on the first Christmas into this world two-millennia ago to die in sacrifice for our sins and to rise so He could pave a road into eternity with God for all who repent and believe in Him. “All who call on the name of the will be saved!” In Christ, we are never alone. In Christ, we always have a home. Take shelter in His strong arms. Amen